Monday, September 27, 2004

Still Glad I Use Firefox 

There's been a lot of news for Mozilla Firefox lately. A couple weeks ago, with the preview release of Firefox 1.0, they put up SpreadFirefox.com, a site to try to coordinate a community effort to market Firefox. This is like the old "Get Netscape" buttons redone with some modernity. They've put an affiliate system in place, so that bloggers who drive downloads to them can get some rewards in the form of recognition and Gmail accounts.

I think this is all a great idea. Microsoft has the biggest ad budget in the world, but publicity is much more valuable and much harder to get. And they've managed to get plenty of publicity in the past few weeks, even in print media. Several big sites have reported a growing number of Mozilla Firefox users in recent months; W3Schools.com has reported that nearly a sixth of their users are using Mozilla browser, and the more mainstream News.com reports that in September, nearly 20% of their visitors were using Mozilla browsers, up from 8% at the beginning of the year.

Of course, Charles Manski would point out that this is only meaningful if you believe that the people who browse those sites have the same distribution of browser usage as people in general. I don't believe that, but there are two possible responses to this. The first is that even though the average user won't go to W3Schools.com or News.com, IT professionals and web developers probably do, and so it is a good sign the readership of those sites is increasingly using Firefox. They probably are sympathetic to making the websites they develop or the corporate intranets they administer friendly to Firefox (My employer plans to role it out shortly). The second response is that a web research firm has reported that Mozilla's usage share has been increasing while IE has been suffering its first declines ever:

Mainstream users have not shown the same gung-ho enthusiasm for the non-Microsoft browser but have increasingly adopted Firefox, according to Web analytics firm WebSideStory. The percentage of visitors to e-commerce and corporate sites that used Firefox or another Mozilla browser grew to 5.2 percent in September, from 3.5 percent in June 2004. Meanwhile, Microsoft's share of the users shrank from 95.5 percent in June to 93.7 percent in September, according to the company.

It sounds pathetic, but it is major news for a volunteer-led project like Firefox to make such a big dent in market share so quickly, against the incredible market and distribution power of Microsoft. Furthermore, it's not clear that Microsoft has any credible response to the factors that seem to be driving people towards Mozilla. We can't really be sure what those are, but I would say the main factors are probably security fears and an increasingly inconvenient browsing experience when using IE.

When Microsoft announced their major security initiative over a year ago, I actually thought they would make some progress. Most people understand that this is a strength of open source software, and taking that away would definitely benefit Microsoft. They even closed the company down for a month so that all their programmers could go through and harden their code. However, nearly two years later, it's hard to see any improvement in the situation. Microsoft recently released Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, which contained many fixes, but it's not clear that enough people are downloading it, given the hassle that it is, and it was already outdated before it was released. Their credibility on security is even thinner now that they've made such a big deal about getting tough.

More important might be the browsing experience. The version of IE in Service Pack 2 does contain popup blocking, but I imagine most users probably won't get a version of IE that does this until they move to Windows Longhorn in a year or two. Microsoft has declined to continue development on IE as a standalone program, requiring users to buy new versions of Windows to get any updates to it. That's just not a realistic strategy in this game, given how incredibly quickly their competitors can move. Firefox is a small, free download and makes popup ads go away right now. In the past few weeks, a growing numbers of sites, including the New York Times and Slate, are popping up ads that take up the entire screen. As that annoyance factor increases, the one-time investment in effort required to get Firefox probably looks more and more like a good deal to people. Again, until Microsoft shows that they can move quickly and add the innovative features that make people love Firefox once they try it, this is going to remain a problem for them.

I've often said that in order for Microsoft to lose their power here, they don't need to stop being the dominant web browser. What percentage of customers do you think eBay or Amazon is comfortable with turning away, or providing a substandard experience for? One in 20? One in 10? With the increasing amount of strange software that installs itself silently through IE, or hijacks people's home pages, it becomes increasingly hard for sites to tell their users to just use IE. If sites are finding it important to work with other browsers, Microsoft can't tell the web what to do as easily.

In fact, one of the SpreadFirefox guys recently put up a site, Defending the Fox. The idea is to collect a list of sites that don't work on Firefox; I looked at the entire list and it was notable to me for the absence of any sites I visit (OK, I could see myself needing to use verizonwireless.net, but I happen to use T-Mobile). The site is fine, but really, I wouldn't bother. As I've said before, I've used Firefox for several years now without any major inconveniences (I do take advantage of its privacy settings to deny third-party cookies (not the default setting), which makes Hotmail not work, but that's their own damn fault: Gmail and every other web mail or login-based service I use seems to get by without them). The list is basically an advertisement for how compatible Firefox is with the web as it exists today. It seems almost everyone has taken the miniscule amount of effort required to make sure their site is largely standards-compliant and works with all the major browsers.

Coming back to the incredible publicity push by SpreadFirefox.com, they've had a great couple of weeks. Their campaign to get 1 million downloads of their preview release in ten days wound up with their getting 2 million downloads in the same period. I think this was a bit of a conservative goal; they said several months ago that their daily download rate had risen to 150,000 to 200,000 a day in response to the increased worm attacks of the past year. Still, carefully managing that campaign gave them another publicity punch after the campaign ended. Notably, their top 100 bloggers were specifically responsible for 100,000 referrals in that period.

It is hard to know what the long-term trend will be. It's not clear whether they'll be able to sustain this rate of interest or not. Nonetheless, the underlying factors that seem to be sparking such interest in Firefox, aside from their PR push, seem likely to stick around for another year or two.

Oprah should give a copy of Firefox to everyone in the audience.
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