With the release of the public beta version of IE7 more and more articles are being published postulating that Mozilla Firefox is beginning to lose its lead in the browser wars. Many are relating this to the way Netscape lost its lead to IE in the past. Richard MacManus of Read/Write Web, writing on ZDNet, is the latest to put this point in writing. The argument seems to be that Firefox is quickly losing its main advantages and selling points which have contributed in converting 10% to 15% of the market to the browser. Leaving that argument aside for the moment, I often wonder if most of these ‘pundits’ (Richard MacManus excluded) are fully aware of the subject they are writing about. First of all, while I myself use Firefox as my primary browser, Firefox is not now or has been in the past the leader in browser innovation, this honor belongs to Opera. Secondly, these comparisons between the beta version of IE, Firefox 1.5 and Opera 8.5 are like comparing apples to oranges. Comparing a beta version of IE with the latest two end user releases from Mozilla and Opera makes little sense. At the very least, use the new beta version of Opera (Opera 9) which has many significant changes (the soon to be released alpha version of Firefox 2 includes many significant changes, also, and will be in end-user release by the time IE 7 hits the market).
The argument that Firefox is losing its edge revolves around three issues. IE 7 is no longer behind the curve on security, Firefox has way too many memory issues, and any advantage Firefox had in the user interface department has been taken away by IE 7. On the security front the new version of IE is a definite improvement. The IE developers have taken some drastic steps to clean up its act (See A Crawler-based Study of Spyware on the Web (PDF) by the University of Washington for a study on the threats facing IE 6 and Firefox 1.5 and please no references to George Ou reporting that Firefox has more security holes than IE). But while the new architecture, in IE, should result in a decrease in the number of overall exploits, IE is still and will continue to be playing catch up in this area.
On the memory front, Firefox is not without its problems and can be improved. At times Firefox can use up a fair amount of memory. Most of this seems to be caused by extensions, though Jesse Ruderman has described a memory leak issue with Gmail, which have been released without the proper testing. The Session saver, NoScript, IE Tab, and a combination of FlashGot and Filterset.G Updater extensions have been found to cause memory leaks (this is why the Mozilla folks need to create a group that much more extensive testing on extensions before they are added to the Mozilla add-on site). In addition, setting the browser history to extremely large values, opening large amount of tabs or keeping high amounts of days in history will increase memory usage. Opening a large amount of tabs can cause a problem as Firefox has a Back-Forward cache that retains the pages for the last five session history entries of each tab. Many of these memory issues have been fixed in Firefox 188.8.131.52, some will be fixed in Firefox 184.108.40.206 (which is scheduled to be released in March), and most will be fixed in Firefox 2.
When it comes to the user interfaces of the browsers, this area is not just about having a built-in RSS reader and tabs. If it was, Opera would be where Firefox currently is. Firefox is more that just a browser, unlike Netscape or even the upcoming new version of IE. It is a browser based platform. Firefox extensions and Greasemonkey scripts are what truly make Firefox stand out from the pack. While many use very few of these extensions, some extensions like the Web Developer extension, for web developers, and the Performancing extension, for bloggers, by themselves make Firefox in indispensable piece of software to have.
While others are worried that Mozilla may be “dropping the ball” with Firefox I see no real cause for concern. Mozilla has a significant challenge ahead of it in continuing to grow its market share, there is no real immediate danger in Firefox losing its place of innovation and leadership in the browser market. It’s very nature leads Firefox to lead IE in security, even in its current state Firefox is more secure than than IE 7. Most of the memory issues are caused by situations the average user and even most heavy users will never encounter and the list of improvements and enhancements to Firefox 2 should allow the browser to continue to be at the forefront in setting the user interface enhancements in the industry.
Update: Ben Goodger has just posted an article about the Firefox memory leak.