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Are The Fat Times Over For Firefox?

Firefox continues to gain users in Europe as it does in the U.S., a French Web metrics firm says, although the rate of increase appears to be slowing.
Firefox continues to gain users in Europe as it does in the U.S., a French Web metrics firm said Tuesday, although the rate of increase appears to be slowing. The Mozilla Foundation's reaction? It's the bottom line market share numbers that matter, not how fast, or slow, Firefox attracts fans.

According to French Web measuring site XiTi, Firefox's European market share by the end of May was 14.1 percent of the browsers used to access the nearly 150,000 sites the company says it monitors.

That's up just .8 percent over April's 13.3 percent; that month, on the other hand, saw an increase of 1.7 percent over March's 11.6 percent.

"In real terms, it's simply going to be harder to sustain dramatic growth," said Chris Hofmann, the director of engineering of the Mozilla Foundation "When you start out with a just couple of million users, you only have to get a couple million more to double it. Growth is harder to maintain when there are 60 million copies of Firefox downloaded."

XiTi's numbers are substantially higher than other metrics firms. Amsterdam-based OneStat, for instance, tagged Firefox's usage share at 8.7 percent at the end of April, while San Diego, Calif.-based WebSideStory's numbers for the same period showed a 6.75 percent share of the U.S. browser market. (To illustrate the variation between metrics providers, XiTi said that Firefox owned 14 percent of the U.S. browser business, more than double WebSideStory's number.)

But all the metrics suppliers have tracked a gradual slow-down of Firefox's growth. "While Firefox was in beta, it was picking up about 0.5 percent per month," said Geoff Johnston, an analyst with WebSideStory. "For the first few months after its 1.0 release, it was growing at about 1 percent per month. In 2005, it's mostly been down around o.4 percent each month."

That slowing isn't surprising, said Johnston, if only because Firefox "has to constantly swim upstream against IE. Everything is working against it when it comes to convenience," he said, noting that every time a user buys a new machine, he or she must download and install Firefox. "If you're someone who has tried Firefox, but liked it only somewhat, you may just not download it onto the next machine."

Hofmann, however, takes less stock in growth rates than do analysts. "The growth rate will definitely slow down, but the number to watch is the real percentage of Firefox users."

In some countries, that number has already broken the 10 percent which some members of the Mozilla development community have held up as a goal. XiTi's data, for instance, put countries like France, the U.K., and Germany in that group. In April, said XiTi, Firefox accounted for 13.3 percent of all browsers; by May that number was 14.4 percent.

"Getting 10 percent [worldwide] would be a significant milestone," agreed Hofmann, but he felt other things were more important than the numbers. "The higher [market] share gets Web site developers to support open standards."

One of the issues some users have with Firefox is that it doesn't properly render pages written specifically for Internet Explorer.

The true test of Firefox's ability to hang on to users and collect new ones will come this summer as Microsoft releases the beta of Internet Explorer 7.

XiTi is optimistic for Firefox, saying on its Web site that Microsoft's announcements about IE 7 haven't put the brakes on Firefox's growth. WebSideStory's Johnston, on the other hand, thinks Mozilla may have run out of the early adopters and hard-core users who fueled the fast market share expansion.

"The question in the next few weeks will be, is Firefox [growth] staying steady, or will it flatten out? There's some evidence that [growth] may be tailing off and things are not chugging along."

When IE 7 comes out, Firefox will be faced with its first test against a revamped browser that, at least by Microsoft's few details, will emulate the Mozilla product in some ways.

"Will [Firefox] be 'better enough' than IE to hold its ground?" asked Johnston.

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