The long-stagnant Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) might command about 95 percent of the Web browser market but a recent spate of security vulnerabilities seems to be finally helping IE's competitors make some inroads into the market. Even the usually staid United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) has taken the unusual step of advising users to switch to a different browser because of IE's many attacks. The result has been a bonanza for safer browser alternatives such as Mozilla and Opera.
The Mozilla Foundation reports that daily downloads of its Mozilla browser suite and Firefox Web browser have doubled since US-CERT's recommendation; on the day of the US-CERT announcement, the foundation says that users downloaded the products more than 200,000 times. "More people seem to have reached their threshold level of frustration dealing with problems with IE and Windows and have found the Mozilla software a good solution to solving those problems," Chris Hofmann, The Mozilla Foundation's director of engineering, said. "US-CERT's recommendation is just a reflection of the trend we have seen for quite some time."
Experts point to several obvious problems with IE. First, the browser is so widely used that it's a natural attack point. Second, IE is integrated directly into the Windows OS, a curious and ultimately damaging decision that made a previously secure Windows NT-based system vulnerable to new types of attacks. Third, IE technologies such as ActiveX have proven to be highly insecure, and many IE attacks exploit ActiveX-related vulnerabilities. Microsoft will address the latter concern in Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) but the company has no plans to provide this functionality in other Windows versions or to completely decouple the browser from its OSs.
The Mozilla Foundation and Opera Software say that they have solutions for the first problem. If the current download rates continue, the browser alternatives might soon be nibbling away at IE's massive market share. If that happens, Web designers will have to take those browsers into account more often when they design Web sites. And because Mozilla and Opera adhere more closely to Web standards than IE does, that situation could eventually lead to dramatic changes on the Web in general. Perhaps future IE versions would also be more standards-compliant as a result, which would make the process of developing Web sites much easier because developers could simply target one standard. Today, IE's market share causes Web developers to target IE's nonstandard technical idiosyncrasies first.