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Is Firefox Falling Behind in the Browser Wars?

Published on February 14, 2006 in Browsers, Firefox

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, some will be fixed in Firefox (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.


  1. Omar Upegui R., February 14, 2006:

    I don’t think Firefox is losing it’s competitive advantage. They still lead the pack regarding extensions. No other browser has this feature.

    I don’t agree with the statement that “Most of the memory issues are caused by situations the average user and even most heavy users will never encounter .” I have 256 MB of RAM and feel the pinch of memory leaks to the point that I have to relaunch Firefox to go back to square one. It’s a minor problem I know, but still it’s a problem Opera users don’t have. I don’t know about Internet Explorer, because I don’t use it that much. I only use it to upgrade Windows XP and MS Office.

    Internet Explorer is still a sweet spot for hackers. I read yesterday that there is another vulnerability found in IE 7 Beta 2 which Microsoft insists in denying. By denying existing flaws, Microsoft is not doing its users a favor. Once their computers get infected, they will all be jumping into the Opera or Firefox bandwagons.

    I agree that Opera is the natural innovator. Most of the features found in Firefox and Internet Explorer were used by Opera for quite some time. Right now, Opera is leading the pack in mobile browsing. Opera’s recent release of version 9 TP2 is superior to Firefox excluding the use of extensions. Right now I use Opera and Firefox and their use is transparent for me, meaning they perform almost identically. I say almost, because Firefox’s speller–Spellbound–is far superior to Opera’s GNU Aspell. I understand Firefox 2 will include a speller and there will be no need to download an extension to have this feature. I applaud this decision, since a speller is my “bread and butter” when I post in my blog or participate in different forums. Internet Explorer is out of my radar screen.

    Just my two cents worth on this exciting subject.



  2. Heathen Dan, February 14, 2006:

    Thanks for the good post. FF does appear to be stalling, though with the next major release I believe it can get its second wind. Another thing I noticed is that FF’s aggressive campaign has prematurely converted a number of IE users who are not prepared to learn a new browser software. My brother tried FF but returned to IE in a couple of days. He is not tech savvy and prefers familiarity over unseen “promises.”

    BTW, that Ben Goodger link has a pretty funny line, which I paraphrase as “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” Someone seems to be taking a page from Microsoft’s PR dictionary.

  3. Leslie Franke, February 15, 2006:

    Omar… I should have been more clear in my statement about the memory. Most of the complaining that is being done seems to be around extension issues or, for example, people who have “25 tabs” open at once. You are right about having 256 MB of RAM and some people getting memory problems. As for Firefox extensions this is one of the main things that keeps me from using Opera. I “could not live” without a few extensions I use. It will be interesting to see where Opera goes with widgets on both the desktop and mobile versions.

  4. Leslie Franke, February 15, 2006:

    Heathen…That is a good point about Ben Goodger’s line. I read over it quickly the first time, it does sound like something right out of Microsoft’s playbook.

  5. Ashton, February 15, 2006:

    After trying the Opera 9 tech preview, I don’t see myself using either IE or FF in the future. It’s a lot faster than both other browsers, it’s compatible, it has the best user designed interface of the three and it has a native bit torrent client integrated

  6. Zoppa, February 16, 2006:

    I’d just like to point out a couple of things:

    1. Opera web dev toolbar: http://nontroppo.org/wiki/WebDevToolbar
    2. Opera has User JS, which is “Greasemonkey”, only built in. Check out userjs.org.

    The Performancing thing looks like it would be possible to do in Opera as well.

  7. Leslie Franke, February 16, 2006:

    Ashton…You are not going to get a argument from me that the new preview of Opera is nice. As to the user inferface it is all about the way you set things up. You can almost make Firefox act like Opera. I personally prefer Firefox’s interface better as I have more control over exactly how I can set things up. As to bit torrent support, it is a nice trick but something that most users do not need. Thus it is probably better as an extension like the upcoming All Peers extension.

  8. Leslie Franke, February 16, 2006:

    Zoppa..I have tried the Opera web developer toolbar. It is nice but not as full featured as Firefox’s. I use it sometimes to fix problems with how pages render in Opera. Opera’s User JS, and for the time being their widgets suffer from one problem. The lack of developers focusing on creating new ones. I belief this is the one thing that truly seperates Firefox from Opera.

  9. ROBO Design, April 22, 2006:

    I don’t entirely agree.

    For one, Firefox is still MUCH more powerful in comparison to IE 7.

    Firefox is not stalling as a project. How about IE? It took many years to get IE 7. Firefox is being worked and will continue to do so.

    Same goes for Opera. It’s a very powerful, constantly updated, browser compared to IE 6 (and IE 7).

    Is the security improving in IE 7? Yes. Standards support? Yes. How much? Very little. That’s the problem.

    The memory problem in Firefox is not huge. The browser is being improved and fixed.

    IE 7 is not good (enough): no DOM improvements, very few CSS improvements, sporting an ugly interface. It’s just hype over nothing. After aprox. 5 years IE 7 is just a toy upgrade.

    The one thing I agree with you is Firefox market share growth will slow down with the release of IE 7. It might even lose some market share percentages. Thanks to The Hypeâ„¢.

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Leslie Franke:[les-lee fran-key]; 1. Husband and proud dogowner; 2. Seventh-day Adventist; 3. Web Designer; 4. Atlanta Braves Fan; 5. Northeast Ohio Native; 6. Bottle Caps Lover; 7. Certified 'Freakonomic';