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TECHNOLOGY

Browser choice benefits Web users

By Julie Clothier for CNN

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Microsoft is expected to launch IE7 within the next year.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When it comes to browsers, Microsoft's Internet Explorer has a stronghold on the market, but other products are starting to make inroads, giving Web users a choice about what software they use to surf the Net.

Microsoft, which took the lead in the Web browser market in the late 1990s, crushing would-be rival Netscape, is due to launch Internet Explorer version 7 (IE7) in the next year, and it promises a much-improved product.

But at least two other companies -- the Mozilla Foundation and Opera -- are enjoying success with their products.

Almost a year after it launched its Firefox browser, the California-based Mozilla Foundation estimates that more than 30 million desktops in Europe alone have Firefox installed.

Like other open source software, such as the operating system Linux, Firefox's code is freely available for any programmer to examine and improve.

Mozilla Europe founder and president Tristan Nitot told CNN that although the numbers were encouraging, the main aim of the foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to developing open source software, was to promote choice and innovation on the Internet.

"Yes we are competing against Microsoft, (there's) no doubt. But we have to get back to our mission statement, which is promoting choice and innovation on the Internet. This is our mission," he says.

"It's not about just making money and having millions of users. If that happens, then alright, great."

Nitot says he does not feel threatened by the launch of IE7.

"They are building an emergency on top of something that is not very solid. IE has security patches and if it's the same code base, it's like repainting a house with not very good foundations. Sooner or later you have to do something with the foundations of the house."

Nitot says it is important that Web users have choice about which browser suits them best, instead of taking a one-size-fits-all-approach.

He believes that even if a consumer uses IE, they still benefit from having competitors in the browser market because Microsoft takes notice of what the competition is doing.

"For us, the next thing is getting Firefox 1.5 launched and reaching more people. And the more people using it means the more pressure we put on the market, which helps us reach our goal which is promoting choice and innovation on the Internet," Nitot says.

Norwegian company Opera is also making its presence felt in the browser market.

It puts the number of desktops that use its software at between 10 and 15 million, and says it has had 30 to 50 percent growth every year for the past 10 years.

Founder and CEO Jon S. von Tetzchner told CNN that although Opera's growing success had attracted attention recently, the code is actually 11 years old. The company was formed in 1995.

He says that while Mozilla is Opera's competitor, the two companies share the goal of creating choice for consumers.

Tetzchner does not think IE has significantly improved in five years, apart from in the area of security. He says this is holding back the development of the Web.

"Five years is a long time when it comes to technology. It's a school book example of what a monopoly can do," he says.

In September, Opera released version 8.50 of its software, offering it for free. Previously the company charged a subscription fee.

Tetzchner agrees with Nitot that competition in the browser market has benefited consumers, and he believes that consumers should be able to choose the best browser for their needs.

"Until now, people haven't really had the choice. Firefox have had growth in users, we have had growth too. Microsoft have already had to respond to this," he says.

"People are fed up with IE. It's looking outdated. If everyone has the same browser, then everyone has the same holes, which makes it less secure."

Opera is hoping to make further inroads in the market with its Mini product, which can be used on handhelds and mobile phones.

"Theoretically we could become the number one browser, but we are never going to be in that place on the desktop. It would be tough -- but we'll try," Tetzchner says.

David Weeks, Windows marketing manager for Microsoft, told CNN that the company had made huge strides when it came to improving security on the Internet.

"When we first launched, Netscape was around. At the end of the day IE won consumers over. The customers make a choice. They are not tied to IE," he says.

IE's share dropped to 92 percent when Firefox was launched but this was now back to 97 percent, Weeks said.

"The advances and controls of IE early on won the customer over. Perhaps we did get complacent with IE6. We didn't do major updates apart from security. We've slowly seen now that people are coming back to IE," he says.

"To have competition on the market, to have Firefox ... It's great for the consumer. We've gone away and developed an update on IE6 and delivered what the customer wants."

A beta one of IE7, aimed at the technical community, has been launched and the company is currently incorporating updates into it, based on user feedback.

He expects the new version to be released by the end of next year.

Weeks says that for the sake of familiarity, IE7 will look the same, but new features include tab browsing, anti-phishing measures, increased security and improved printing capabilities.

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