Upstarts secure prominent place in the browser battle

Internet Explorer continues to rule the browser space, but Microsoft's dominance is being challenged by a growing collection of marketing-savvy newcomers.

Internet Explorer continues to rule the browser space, but Microsoft's dominance is being challenged by a growing collection of marketing-savvy newcomers.

During Memorial Day weekend, some anonymous web surfer was responsible for the 60 millionth download of Firefox, an open-source browser created by the Mozilla Foundation. Although more than eight times as many people use Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), Firefox is very much on the move. The 8-month-old browser's 50 millionth download came just over a month ago, on April 29.

Those statistics become even more interesting when considering the fact that the Mozilla Foundation is a nonprofit organization with a small marketing budget and a communications strategy driven by enthusiasts who have done nearly as much to promote the browser as have the foundation and its PR firm, A&R Partners. For example, Firefox has never launched a large-scale ad campaign, but its one New York Times ad was paid for by donations from 10,000 loyal users.

Firefox's 60 millionth download is only one of the many milestones this year for the browser marketplace.

Norway-based Opera and Netscape, owned by America Online, both launched the newest versions of their browsers in April and May, respectively, and Microsoft will be unveiling its seventh iteration of IE this summer. Apple released its new operating system, Tiger, last month, which included the newest version of its browser, Safari. Combined with the steady ascent of the Firefox browser, which will issue an update during the summer as well, browser companies - and their agencies - have the opportunity to communicate to audiences that are willing to adopt their products.

"A new browser war is going on," says Brad King, web editor of Technologyreview.com. He says that because it costs nothing to download a different browser - Opera has a free version if users accept ads - and because switching to a new one doesn't require much technical proficiency, he expects many people will at least try changing.

"People are switching browsers and looking for alternatives," says Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner.

The Firefox effect appears to be eating into IE's market share. According to WebSideStory, a provider of digital marketing statistics and solutions, Firefox has gone from 3.5% of US market share in November to 6.75% last month. Microsoft still has about 89% of the marketplace, but that is down from 95% in June 2004. Web analytics firm OneStat.com shows Firefox with 8.7%and IE with 86.6% of the global browser market.

King says there are two distinct targets in the browser wars: tech enthusiasts, who are the early adopters clamoring to get their hands on new releases of everything; and the rest of the population, who often don't have the patience, time, or desire to try out new products.

Preaching security

"The challenge is to break out past the geeks to mainstream consumers," says Steve Rubel, SVP, client services at CooperKatz & Company. "[Developers] must educate them about [browser] safety and security."

Security appears to be the key messaging point for the general population. Both Opera and Netscape highlight their products' security benefits in the opening paragraphs of press releases that announce the new versions.

"Security is the main point, and that's what will [attract] moms and pops," Rubel says. "I don't think it's going to be RSS, extensions, or tabbed browsing."

Tetzchner agrees: "One of the main reasons why people try alternative browsers is security."

The mainstream media has focused on the availability of alternative browsers and their security benefits, with Firefox appearing on World News Tonight and 60 Minutes.

Tetzchner says that while it's important to promote Opera's browser, any story that discusses browser choices is a good placement.

"We want people to know there are alternatives and we want them to know about Opera," Tetzchner says. "People should have a choice."

But Rubel believes that the browsers should pitch their non-technical attributes to the media. For example, he says that Firefox needs to play up the fact that its lead architect is a 19-year-old wunderkind named Blake Ross. (Opera may have different ideas, having garnered some media attention in March when Tetzchner made good on a promise to attempt a swim from Norway to the US if 1 million versions of the Opera software were downloaded in four days.)

While media relations may educate the mainstream audience, the companies are also energizing their core enthusiasts through viral campaigns and online communications.

"Companies that have no marketing budgets can do phenomenally well on the web," says Evan Hansen, editor in chief of Wired News. "Firefox is one of those [pursuing] viral marketing."

Many online Firefox marketing initiatives start at SpreadFirefox.com, where readers are asked to submit ideas for further promotion of the browser. The website makes available a script to add to one's blog or website that produces a "Spread Firefox" button, which links to the download page. SpreadFirefox. com keeps track of who referred those downloading the software.

Rubel is one of the bloggers with the SpreadFirefox.com logo on his blog. He has even convinced some colleagues at CooperKatz to switch.

"They have a great product, and I'm a devout user," Rubel says. "Anything that helps them helps me because the Mozilla Foundation will have more people contributing to its product."

Opera has also worked with its enthusiast community.

"When the community likes a product, they want to get engaged, and we're happy for that," Tetzchner says. "The best marketing you can get is a person who is enthusiastic about your product."

When Microsoft first announced it would be unveiling version 7.0 in the summer of 2005, the IE blog received over 1,000 comments. Some were positive, some were negative, but nearly all were constructive suggestions.

Microsoft, a company that has been criticized in the past for top-down messaging, now keeps an IE blog and wiki where developers post ideas and solicit feedback for the update. While the conversation occurring there would be difficult for tech-disinclined internet users to follow, those responding will likely help shape the user experience for the entire community. The company also has Robert Scoble, an employee who blogs about the company and whose title is technical evangelist. On his well-read blog, Scoble asked his readers what they wanted in an IE browser. He received over 100 responses.

Challenges mount for Microsoft

But Microsoft has been criticized in the past for its slow updates to the IE browser. With Firefox embracing the open-source community, King says Microsoft will continue to face criticism for guarding its code.

"They have a huge PR hurdle to overcome," King says. But he adds the unveiling of the new version proves that Microsoft is back to competing for that lost market share. He believes the browser war will come down to IE and Firefox.

King says that while IE has the benefit of being bundled into Microsoft's operating system, the rumors that Google may team up with Mozilla or use its framework have kept things interesting. Google has registered the domain name www.gbrowser.com, but has not commented publicly about any particular browser strategy.

"There is interesting buzz going on as to whether Google will launch its own browser," King says. "That would really be the biggest threat to Microsoft. My mom knows what Google is and she would probably use the Google browser."

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