RED HERRING: In less than a year after its launch, the Firefox browser has already clocked 100 million downloads, browser development officials said Thursday, marking a milestone that solidifies Firefox’s No. 2 position after Microsoft’s dominant Internet Explorer.

Firefox, which launched in November 2004, has now logged more than 45 million users, said the Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit group that oversees the browser’s development. That gives Firefox a 7.6 percent share of the browser market, according to September figures from Net Applications, a very distant second to IE’s 86.9 percent share.

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Nevertheless, Firefox has managed to become the closest competitor to Microsoft since the Redmond giant vanquished Netscape in the late 1990s. It’s no small feat, said analysts, given that Microsoft has been in the browser business for about a decade.

Reaching the 100-million download mark is important for Firefox, analysts said, because typically a greater market share means developers will design and support more programs for Firefox.

“Now the company is in a position to go back and reclaim territory captured long ago,” said Joe Wilcox, an analyst for Jupiter Research. “That said, I don’t doubt IE’s dominance. You can fire a pop gun at a tank, but at some point you have to get out of the way.”

Indeed, there are already reports that growth in the Firefox browser may be slowing down. Net Applications said the browser’s market share has been declining slightly since June, when it reached a peak of 8.7 percent. IE’s share, meanwhile, has continued to grow.

September Browser Market Share

Browser

Share (%)

Microsoft Internet Explorer

86.87

Firefox

7.55

Safari

2.39

Netscape

2.16

Opera

0.51

Other

0.51

Source: Net Applications’ HitsLink

Asa Dotzler, Mozilla’s community coordinator, disputed reports of shrinking market share. Mozilla continues to see about 200,000 to 300,000 downloads of the browser every day, he said.

“Our download count and the number of users we see are on a steady upward trend,” Mr. Dotzler said. “Metrics that don’t fit that trend are too short term or use too restrictive a sample to give an accurate picture.”

Whatever the case may be, it’s true that Firefox has struggled to compete with IE. Microsoft enjoys a huge advantage as it’s able to bundle IE with its Windows, the world’s most widely used operating system.

Different Model

Firefox has grown rapidly in a different way. The browser has been built using an open-source model, harnessing a community of more than 100,000 Firefox developers, testers, and marketers. Mozilla does little advertising, relying on word of mouth to spread the product. The company says its browser is faster and more secure than competitors.

Mr. Dotzler argues that Firefox’s success also comes from shaking up the once stagnant browser space.

“For years, nothing happened on the on the browser landscape,” he said. “Then Firefox came along, stirred things up and reignited competition in the space.”

One competitor has come from Norway. Just a month ago, Firefox rival Opera, based in Oslo, started providing an ad-free version of its browser, a move designed to widen its appeal. Previously, Opera users had to pay a $39 licensing fee or endure banner ads in the browser windows (see Opera Browser is Now Free).

Raising visibility

Mindful of the competition, Mountain View, California-based Mozilla over the next few months is planning marketing events aimed at increasing Firefox’s visibility. Among the plans are media campaigns including featuring Firefox T-shirts in upcoming episodes of Supernatural on the Warner Bros channel.

Mozilla also has some less traditional publicity events planned. A balloon satellite is scheduled to take a large Firefox banner into space on October 22 with help of the Oregon State Linux Users Group and the Oregon NASA Space Grant Consortium.

“When you get away from existing technology centers, you find there are people who have still not heard of Firefox,” said Mike Shaver, chief technology strategist for Mozilla. “We want to show the world that we are going to be as creative about marketing and distribution as we have been about our code.”