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Seattle Times technology reporter
For those who remember the browser wars, Microsoft seems to be missing in action from the latest battle.
In recent months, upstart browsers such as Firefox and Opera have lured more than 10 million users away from Microsoft's Internet Explorer, largely because of concerns about IE's security problems.
Microsoft is busy building and testing a faster, more secure version internally, but executives say it won't be released for at least another year, until the next version of Windows is done in 2006.
They say customers can upgrade IE in the meantime with security patches and add-on features available from Microsoft and other companies that "extend" the software.
"We're not changing our strategy," said Jim Allchin, head of the Windows platform division. "We have a very, very innovative set of capabilities that we're putting in the next version. And in the meantime it's an extensible platform, and there will be a set of extensions that Microsoft does as well as others."
One computer-security expert said that by waiting to release the next version of IE, Microsoft is giving a head start to makers of malicious software.
The delay is also allowing newcomers such as Firefox to claim the state of the art in browser technology. Firefox, a descendant of Netscape Navigator, was released last month with the support of volunteer programmers and Microsoft competitors such as America Online, Sun Microsystems and IBM.
Separately, AOL has started testing two new browsers, including a new version of Netscape, which it acquired in 1999.
"Users have clearly indicated, by the growing shift toward alternative browsers, that they want a choice," said Netscape spokesman Andrew Weinstein.
It's hard to believe this is happening to the same Microsoft that just seven years ago was rushing out new versions of Internet Explorer to compete with every Netscape advance, and bullying computer makers that put Netscape's browser on their systems.
That ferocious approach led to court decisions that Microsoft broke antitrust law and cost the company more than $3 billion in settlements with Netscape and others.
But legal concerns have little to do with the company's more moderate approach to browser development, according to the manager in charge of IE.
A bigger factor is Microsoft's responsibilities as the dominant provider of browsing software, said Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Internet Explorer.
Now that IE is used on most of the world's computers, racing to match the features of competitors is less important than providing a stable, reliable product, Hachamovitch said.
Microsoft is especially sensitive to the concerns of big companies and software developers that build products based on IE. They want Microsoft to proceed cautiously and to continue making subtle improvements to its current browser, he said.
Hachamovitch said he has to balance those concerns with the requests of customers who want new features such as the "tabbed" Web page displays offered by Opera and Firefox.
"You go through and talk to all these people and ask them what they want out of a browser and there are a lot of conflicting requests around: 'Hey, give me tabs right now' versus 'I want stability, I want a platform that won't break, I want to make sure I have extensability, I want to make sure have manageability,' " he said.
"There's layer after layer of expectation because of the role that software has today," he said. "That wasn't there five years ago, much less 10 or 15 years ago."
Losing market share
Meanwhile, Microsoft has started losing browser market share for the first time in four years. IE's share in the U.S. has dropped from 96 percent in early 2003 to 92 percent as of Dec. 3, according to WebSideStory, a San Diego research company that noticed the downward trend about six months ago.
Analyst Geoff Johnston attributed the shift to simultaneous publicity about Firefox and IE's vulnerabilities. "Not only has this thing not died down, it's gaining some steam," Johnston said. "What [appeared] to be an anomaly six or seven months ago has turned into a full-fledged trend — Firefox has really picked up a lot of fans."
IE's vulnerabilities were severe enough that in June the federal Internet-security monitoring agency suggested that switching browsers was one way to reduce the risk of attack.
The advisory was issued because there was a hole in IE, for which Microsoft has since issued a patch, said Marty Lindner, a team leader at the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team at Carnegie Mellon University.
With IE, Lindner said, "there are known vulnerabilities that there are patches for. If people haven't applied the patches they are at risk."
He said the biggest computer-security vulnerability is the person using the computer, so people should exercise caution and make sure their systems are patched and kept up to date.
"I would argue strongly that you can talk about alternative browsers all you want for whatever reason, but it's not going to minimize the ability of the bad guy to still own your machine," he said.
Hachamovitch said he gets asked often — on airplanes, at dinner parties — whether people can feel secure using IE. His advice is to use the browser with Windows XP and with XP's Windows Update service turned on and the latest update kit — Service Pack 2, or SP2 — installed.
"Whatever software anyone writes at any time, there are malicious people out there. They will target and they will find things to do," he said. "There's a really long discussion we can have around how do you judge trust, how do you judge vulnerability, how do you judge exploitability, how do I judge my safety, what are safe browsing habits?" he said. "Candidly, what do I say to them? I think XP SP2 is still the best browser overall when you look at the full set of criteria for choosing a browser."
Competition that's free
While IE is distributed for PCs only with the Windows operating system, a handful of serious competitors is distributed free on the Web.
One leading contender, particularly in Europe, is Opera, a browser first developed by researchers at Norway's telephone company. A spinoff company formed to produce the browser went public in March, despite the challenge of competing with Microsoft.
"When David was fighting Goliath, he had to be more clever, faster and see opportunities. That's us," Opera public-relations specialist Eskil Sivertsen said via e-mail.
AOL provides a browser based on IE, and it has continued updating the Netscape browser. It's now preparing to release a new version that uses both Netscape and IE technology. Microsoft gave AOL the rights to use IE as part of a $750 million antitrust settlement last year.
AOL is also the largest supporter of Mozilla, a nonprofit group that manages and shares Netscape's browser technology. It released Firefox last month.
AOL provided $2 million to launch Mozilla. About $300,000 more came from open-source software advocate Mitch Kapor.
Former Netscape employees account for most of the roughly 12 to 20 employees at Mozilla's office in Mountain View, Calif. They are supplemented by about 30 software developers from IBM, Sun Microsystems and other companies working with Mozilla technology.
Mozilla officials did not respond to requests for comment before deadline.
Taken for granted
It's unlikely that any of the new browsers will overcome IE, but consumers will benefit from the increased competition, said Ed Felten, a Princeton computer-science professor who testified for the government in Microsoft's antitrust trial.
In those early days, browsers appeared ready to displace the operating system as the platform for personal computing, and the industry's future seemed to be at stake. That never came to pass.
"People now take browsers largely for granted as a piece of basic technology," Felten said.
Browser technology stagnated since Microsoft won the browser wars, he said, and most computer scientists have turned their attention elsewhere.
"We'll see renewed competition in the market between Firefox and IE and we'll probably see more progress than we saw for a while there," he said. "But I doubt it will be seen as one of the central issues in the computer industry."
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