Could 2007 be the year of Firefox?

Firefox is catching up rapidly with its Redmond rival, according to latest figures from browser market share monitors Net Applications. But its growth is less striking if you believe figures from rival firm

According to Net Applications, Firefox had 14% of the market by the end of last year, while an admittedly still-dominant Internet Explorer held 81%. For the same period in 2005, the balance was just 9% against 86%.

Overall, during the year, Firefox held 11% of the market, while IE retained 83%. Trailing in third place was Apple's offering, Safari, with just over 3% over the year – presumably thanks in no small part to it being bundled with OSX.

OneStat's figures, however, paint a rather less dramatic picture. According to the firm, Explorer held 85% of the market in November last year, against Mozilla's 12%. This compares with 85.5% and 11.5% respectively in November of 2005.

OneStat also claims that the latest generation of the open-source browser, Firefox 2, is used by just under a fifth of all Firefox users, while 3.6% of IE users are using the latest release, version 7, which was released in October.

But the wide disparity between the market share percentages of the two pollsters calls into question the validity of the methods used by both companies to obtain their numbers. Both claim to obtain their statistics by monitoring the browsers used by visitors to sites that use their respective monitoring and analysis services.

Regardless of this, it's clear that Firefox is catching up on Microsoft – but is it ready for the mainstream yet? In spite of its clear popularity, barely one in ten users has it installed – and no prizes for guessing the profession of most of those.

It's also unclear how much ground Firefox can yet gain on its commercial rival. While a market share of 12% or 14% - depending on which firm you believe – is undoubtedly impressive from a standing start, it is still hardly astronomical growth. And if OneStat is right, it has managed growth of just half a per cent in a year – arguably a disappointing figure in the year that marked the browser's second major release.

Its growth also risks being stunted in the coming year by security problems. As it becomes a bigger player, it is inevitable that hackers will begin to increasingly target it for the sort of attacks that have dogged Internet Explorer in the past few years. Just last month the Mozilla Foundation released a patch for version 2 addressing no fewer than eight vulnerabilities – five of which it admitted were "critical".

The flow of scripts exploiting the security holes, however, has not yet matched the number that Microsoft might expect when it releases a security update – perhaps reflecting the higher regard in which the Mozilla Foundation is held by the hacker community. Whether its open-source model will work for, or against its security in the long term depends on who you ask.

However, the Mozilla Foundation isn't letting up the momentum on further development: the first alpha of Firefox 3 was released to developers last month, with better support for new rendering standards and various performance tweaks hailed as improvements. Very little is known about what IE8 will contain, or indeed when it will arrive, but it's a safe bet that Microsoft will be watching the output of the Mozilla Foundation closely. Watch this space.

Graham Taylor

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