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Microsoft Is The Underdog in Browser Wars 2.0

This may sound like a counter-intuitive argument, since Microsoft is the current leader in the browser market (at least in terms of users). That said, in my view, the company is the underdog in this current browser war -- just like it was once upon a time.

In the first browser war back in the early to mid-1990, Netscape got out to a massive lead and became the defacto standard early on. Microsoft's early Internet Explorer versions, certainly up to at least IE 3, were pale shadows of Netscape.

Then Microsoft closed the gap and unleashed its monopolistic prowess to tie IE into the Windows operating system. The browser wars were on. Microsoft ultimately settled with Netscape's new masters AOL for $750 million in 2003. War reparations?

Though it is impossible to provide an accurate global measure of what Microsoft's IE's market share is today, I think it's safe to say it's more than 50 percent of the market. Since its 1.0 release, Mozilla Firefox has helped to erode the 90 percent plus dominance that IE once enjoyed.

The seemingly obvious view would be that Mozilla Firefox, the spawn of Microsoft's vanquished foe Netscape, is the underdog coming from a weaker market position. But market position is a vastly different thing than market perception. And the times they are a changing.

In terms of market perception, IE has been ridiculed as insecure, not standards based and not "open." Mozilla capitalizes on this by claiming to offer an open, (mostly) standards based secure browser.

So, is Mozilla Firefox in fact more secure than IE?

In my opinion when running on Windows, where the vast majority of users run as Administrator 100 percent of the time, claiming security is a difficult thing for any browser vendor. Though not truly open like Firefox, IE is extensible and it is making strides towards standards compliance,

Beyond just perception, Microsoft itself has (perhaps unwittingly) positioned itself in an inferior position to Mozilla.

Let's take the latest IE 7 and Firefox 2 releases as an example. With Firefox 2, anyone can download and run it. That's not the case with IE 7.

To run IE 7 you need to run a Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) validated copy of Windows XP. WGA may well be one of the biggest barriers to the adoption of IE 7, even if it is designed to combat piracy of Windows. Many PC users don't knowingly purchase or operate pirated Windows PCs but they still are out there. But they do give up easily when faced with longer than expected validation checks.

IE 7 is also only for Windows XP users and, soon, Vista. Firefox 2, in comparison, will also run on Windows 2000 and ME (and on Windows 98 albeit somewhat sluggishly).

Microsoft may also be at a disadvantage in terms of developers as well. The foot soldiers in the browser race are those that use and help in the development of the browser.

Certainly, Microsoft has tried to engage the developer community around IE 7, but I would argue that the IE 7 community is not as open to development and contributions compared to the Mozilla open source community.

Mozilla simply has more to gain in this current Browser War than Microsoft does. IE isn't a major profit center for Microsoft and it is not a product that is bought or sold. Neither is it for Mozilla. But Mozilla's deal with Google on search ensures a flow of a least tens of millions of dollar per year, a dollar figure that is only likely to grow as user base grows. FireFox is customized for Google's search box and gets some money from the search that goes through them.

Who will win? That's not yet foreseeable

In many ways, Americans like to root for the underdog. For some that underdog is still Mozilla since it isn't the market leader in terms of market share.

Mozilla does have an enviable position in terms of its perception and its adoring throngs of users and aficionados. I have yet to see a Spread IE site. SpreadFirefox.com on the other hand is a vibrant and active community.

Microsoft knows well how to handle the underdog position though. That's how it started after all and how it continues to enter into new markets whether it's with the XBOX or with Microsoft Dynamics.

It isn't yet clear which side will ultimately prevail in browser war 2.0, but one thing is for sure, the dynamics are very different than they were for Netscape. Thanks to Microsoft's unchecked monopolistic behavior in the late 90's, Netscape never really had a viable chance at holding on to its market dominance. Mozilla does have a very viable chance.

Mozilla is not Netscape reborn to take vengeance on its former nemesis. It is a different beast, one that has a new army of recruits that is growing by the day and is riding a wave of popular sentiment and Microsoft missteps.

The first browser war, left the web with lots of incompatibilities and inconsistent behaviors. This time around I don't think compatibility is as much an issue. Each side is trying to achieve some semblance of standards compliance. It's more about the experience and the features.

In this particular conflict, I think the ultimate winners are web users themselves. The competition between Mozilla and Microsoft will spawn innovation for web browsers and a better web experience for all as a result.

So keep on rooting for the underdog, whoever that may be. We'll all end up as winners in the end. Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor for Internetnews.com.