browser warsWhen Firefox 3 was launched on 17 June, the free web browser generated 8,002,530 unique downloads in a day. It’s a hugely impressive figure that constituted a new Guinness world record, albeit in a category that didn’t previously exist.

For the Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit organisation behind Firefox, successfully encouraging so many users to download the new browser on day one was a canny way to grab headlines. But the release of Firefox 3 also marked the moment in which the cultural shift away from Microsoft’s browser Internet Explorer finally went mainstream.

Internet Explorer (IE) has been bundled with Windows since 1995. By 1999, it had become the world’s most widely used web browser, a position it has held ever since. At its peak in early 2003, IE achieved a staggering 95% usage share, leaving its onetime bitter rival Netscape Navigator as nothing more than a forgotten cyber-casualty.

But since July 2003, the level of IE’s dominance has steadily declined. Figures for June 2008 indicate that its market share is now at 73%, compared to 19% for Firefox and 6% for Safari, which is the native browser on Apple Macs and the iPhone (all other browsers have a share of less than 1% each).

Microsoft had become complacent. The first iteration of IE6 was launched in August 2001 and wasn’t replaced by a full IE release for over five years. The debut of the much-hyped IE7 in October 2006 failed to have an impact on IE’s overall market share. Indeed, by that point, Firefox – which was first released in November 2004 – had highlighted just how archaic IE’s interface was.

With its inclusion of tabbed browsing, integrated search box and – thanks to its open source architecture – the option for users to customise it with over 5000 third-party add-ons, Firefox quickly became the technophile’s browser of choice.

In contrast, the muted response that met the release of IE7 offers some clues as to why IE no longer enjoys the ubiquity it once had. Beyond incorporating some of the features that were the catalyst for many users switching to Firefox in the first place, IE7 offered little innovation.

Curiously, IE did have the opportunity to introduce tabbed browsing years before Safari and Firefox popularised it.

If a user wanted to have multiple pages open at once, they were able to use this neat solution as opposed to having to open numerous windows. It was, and remains, an elegant solution but one that IE belatedly embraced only after other browsers highlighted its usefulness.

But IE7′s limitations are more than just anecdotal. Its lack of standards compliancy means that it fails the Web Standards Project’s Acid2 test, which identifies flaws in web browsers: any browser that follows the World Wide Web Consortium HTML and CSS 2.0 specifications will pass. The test is based on whether a somewhat startled-looking smiley face is displayed correctly.

In October 2005, Apple’s Safari was the first browser to make the grade, something that Firefox, Opera and others have also since done. IE remains the only major browser that’s not Acid2 compliant, forcing web developers to insert conditional code to compensate for the differences between IE and other browsers.

Internet Explorer 8, which has been available to download in Beta since March and is expected to be officially released in 2009, comes at a critical moment in IE’s history. Microsoft’s IE development team have already confirmed that it is Acid2 compliant. It also has integrated developer tools, meaning that HTML, CSS and JavaScript debugging can take place directly from the browser.

A feature called Activities assists copying and pasting between web pages, while WebSlices will allow users to subscribe to a specific element of a web page, which can then be viewed from the Favourites bar (think Mac OS X’s Dashboard).

There are some well considered security touches, from safer mash-ups to domain highlighting, which automatically highlights a site’s owning domain to help users identify attempts at phishing. Handily, IE8 will also offer a Firefox-style crash recovery mechanism: if the browser crashes, any web pages being viewed will be salvaged when the browser is restarted.

But, given Microsoft’s closed-source approach to software development, what IE8 won’t do is reflect the open and adaptable nature of Firefox, which users are able to pimp with everything from blog editors to PicLens’ 3D wall.

IE remains couched in old web thinking. As long as that continues to be the case, it’ll risk losing yet more users to Firefox, whose market share has increased from 14% to 21% over the last two years. What began as a cool alternative for in-the-know webheads may be on its way to beating one of the world’s largest corporations at its own game.

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