Firefox at Critical Mass?

The year 2005 was a banner year for open source Web browser Firefox, a fact underscored by recent market share numbers released by site tracker NetApplications.

The company saw the number of Firefox users inch tantalizingly close to the 10 percent figure (9.57 percent, to be exact) in December 2005, a nearly 1 percent jump from November 2005.

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) still dominates the browser world at roughly 85 percent of the market. But that figure is a drop from NetApplication’s November 2005 statistics, which put IE at 86 percent of the market.

Mac-based Safari inched up from 2.78 percent in November 2005 to 3.07 percent the next month; Opera experienced a negligible gain from .53 percent to .55 percent in the same time frame. Netscape dropped from 1.25 percent of the market to 1.24. All other browsers collectively saw a gain from .43 percent to .53 percent.

The numbers show that, while there are a number of browsers available today for end users, it’s likely going to come down to a two-horse race between IE and Firefox.

“Firefox is very close to hitting a critical mass of 10 percent, which could mean a more rapid adoption rate,” Vince Vizzaccaro, NetApplications executive vice president of marketing and strategic relationships, said in a statement.

Although Microsoft is by no means in danger of losing its browser crown for the foreseeable future, the software giant has indirectly acknowledged the rise of these alternative browsers by resurrecting its nearly dormant IE development team.

Last year the company started work on an updated IE with a projected release date in 2006. For many users, it can’t come too soon; while advances in Web development continued apace, the last major update to IE was version 6 in 2001.

Microsoft officials won’t comment on a timeline for IE 7 availability, but it does expect Web surfers will stick with IE 7 and continue its large presence in the browsing community.

“Ultimately, customers will choose the browser that best meets their needs, and we are confident that most will continue to use Internet Explorer and upgrade to IE 7 when they evaluate factors, such as end-user functionality, site and application compatibility, developer extensibility, enterprise manageability, and security backed by the processes and engineering discipline employed by Microsoft,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in an e-mail statement.

Browser market share numbers from organization to organization invariably reflect the community it serves.

NetApplications collects browser data from visits to its customers’ Web sites. Whereas, a portal for Internet developers, tracks browser statistics and routinely shows much higher Firefox adoption rates than elsewhere. Officials note visitors to its site are more inclined than the average Web user to use an alternative browser.

W3Schools shows IE users make up only 68 percent of its visitors — far lower than the numbers provided by NetApplications — with Firefox accounting for 24 percent.

The Mozilla Foundation also has a planned major upgrade to its browser scheduled for this year, code-name The Ocho.

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