Even so, Firefox still has one advantage, achieved with the help of its high profile and market momentum during the past 15 months, that will keep Internet Explorer stuck on the B-team. It's an advantage that probably will not drive same market-share gains against IE 7 that Firefox has enjoyed to date, yet it will ensure that Mozilla and Firefox remain significant players, with a meaningful market share and a loyal, tech-savvy, and demographically attractive user base.Also, no matter how much IE 7 has improved, one thing remains true: This is a product that would never have happened without Mozilla and Firefox in the game, applying immense competitive pressure with an outstanding product and a credible market share.
Suppose Microsoft had, instead of sitting on its complacent corporate butt for so many years, taken the initiative to release what we'll dub the "Bizarro World" version of IE 7, back in 2003 or early 2004? Without any competitive pressure and an overwhelming market share, Bizarro IE 7 might have undermined key Web standards, instead of providing some of the best support for them of any browser on the market. And while Bizarro IE 7 would have included enough new features to marginalize Firefox 1.0 from the very start, you can bet it wouldn't match our real-world IE 7 in either the number of new features or their quality. Bizarro IE 7 might even, with the same "good enough" approach to security improvements, have muted the debate over browser security -- and in turn, relieved the pressure on Microsoft to get its overall software security act together, albeit with mixed results so far.
In other words, Microsoft owes an immense, if intangible, debt to Mozilla for curing -- if only in a very limited sense -- the brain atrpohy that accompanies long-term exposure to monopoly profits. I'm sure the "Thank You" candygram will arrive any day now.
It will be a while before I have a really detailed grasp of how IE 7 and Firefox 1.5.1 (have you updated yet?) stack up. But here's the most important thing you need to know: When IE 7 enters production release, the debate about whether Firefox offers a superior core feature set, Web standards support, usability, or even security will be over. The two products will, at least into the foreseeable future, compete on marginal differences in all four areas; convincing users to switch (in either direction) on this basis will be a difficult and often futile task.
I mentioned at the beginning, however, that Firefox still has a trick that IE 7 can't match: its extensions.
Internet Explorer has its own collection of perhaps a few hundred add-ons, many of which do the same things as Firefox extensions. But when you compare the size and diversity of each browser's supporting cast, and more important, when you compare the cost (yes, cost) and usability each one offers, Firefox holds an immense advantage. While a tiny handful of Firefox extensions are commercial products with price tags attached to them, a sigificant number of IE add-ons fall into the same category -- and in some cases, we're talking $30, $40, $50 or more. These include what look like some of the most useful products, whereas quite a few of the "free" IE add-ons are nannyware, do basically the same thing, or serve as thinly-veiled promotions for non-free software or third-string commercial Web sites.
And then there's the fact that many add-ons just don't work that well. I tried one called jtFlashManager, which I found via its listing on the Windows Marketplace site, that supposedly allows users to turn Internet Explorer's Flash support on or off on a per-site basis. The installation process looked typical for a Windows application, and in fact, what I got was an application with a separate, and not very intuitive user interface for a product that failed to stop most Flash animations from loading anyway.
On Firefox, by comparison, the Flashblock extension is fully integrated with the browser, easy to use, and nearly 100 percent effective. It's also one of the most popular Firefox extensions, and one assumes it should be equally popular among Internet Explorer users. Yet its Internet Explorer equivalent is poorly designed, ugly, ineffective, buried deep within Microsot's hosting catalog site, and probably has fewer downloads than Flaskblock in spite of having five times the potential user base.
Part of Firefox's advantage is, without a doubt, technical: with an open-source code base, user interface and configuration files that are human-readable and relatively easy to tweak, and an architecture designed from the ground up to provide access to third-party software, Firefox is developer-friendly in ways that Internet Explorer cannot match, due to differences that the IE development team cannot work around, no matter how creative they get.
Yet Firefox, through its third-party developer community and the sometimes-fanatical following some extensions enjoy, also commands a huge cultural advantage -- something that a quick look at the 1,000-plus extensions now in circulation will confirm beyond any doubt. Again, this is something Microsoft can't hope to match -- although it is also an advanage Mozilla could lose, either due to bad decision-making or simply through benign neglect and misplaced priorities.
The people who develop Firefox extensions are no longer add-ons: They are Mozilla's competitive advantage, and Firefox's existence as a viable product depends upon their support, creativity, energy, and above all their skill at holding a subtantial part of the Firefox user base.