The Mozilla Foundation has released version 1.0 of its Firefox browser, an open-source product expected to offer real competition to Internet Explorer.
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A preview release of Firefox available since last month has had eight million downloads, according to Mozilla.
Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox said the buzz surrounding Firefox had been fuelled by several factors, including the product's quality. "The Mozilla team has done a really good job with the browser. It's lean and mean."
Then there's the widespread perception that Microsoft's Internet Explorer is vulnerable to security breaches. "There's the fear surrounding IE over potential exploits," said Wilcox. "We hear a lot about the potential vulnerabilities of IE but not so much about the exploits of those vulnerabilities."
Microsoft's decision to limit IE's development in the past three or four years has also been important. "It's as if Microsoft fought hard to win the browser wars and then abandoned the territory," said Wilcox.
During the height of the browser wars, Microsoft cranked out three significant IE upgrades in 18 months. "Now we've been sitting essentially on the same version for the past three or four years. Just because Microsoft isn't advancing its browser technology, there's no reason why it shouldn't advance."
Mozilla's engineering director Chris Hofman said the organisation expected Firefox to take 10-12% of the browser market at some point next year, and to continue growing strongly thereafter.
Although Firefox backers maintain the browser is inherently more secure than IE, it really hasn't been around long enough to be targeted by malicious hackers.
"To IE's advantage, Microsoft is investing huge amounts of money and resources in tracking down and plugging the security holes," said Wilcox. "In theory, that means IE has gone through its worst shakedown and that it's pretty safe. Firefox has yet to face the foxes and their fire."
But Hofman said architectural differences made Firefox more secure than IE, including the decision not to include in Firefox support for Microsoft's ActiveX technology, Such support, he said, made a browser very vulnerable to spyware, viruses and malicious hackers.
"Firefox doesn't have ActiveX technology built into it, so we think it will be quite a while before malicious hackers figure out a potential way to insert spyware into Firefox. We think we have a head start against malicious hackers and hope to continue that lead in the future."
Firefox 1.0 is available in 12 languages for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. It can be bought through Mozilla's website at www.mozilla.org as a free download or in CD format with a user manual for $14.95 (£8).
The result of an open-source project, Firefox 1.0 has an integrated pop-up ad blocker, and safeguards against online scams such as phishing and spoofing by displaying the identities of secure sites. It also consolidates multiple web pages into a single window and organises them with tabs. Version 1.0 solves a security vulnerability recently identified in the tabbed browsing feature.
For those concerned about a bumpy migration to Firefox from other browsers, the product can import bookmarks, passwords and cookies.
The Mozilla Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that supports the Mozilla open-source software project, launched by Netscape. It has around a dozen full-time staff.
Juan Carlos Perez writes for IDG News Service