Walt Mossberg

In Browser Wars, The New Firefox Loses Some Edge

The war of the Web browsers has taken another turn with the release of a major new version of Mozilla Firefox, the No. 2 browser in market share, but No. 1 in the hearts of many of the most knowledgeable computer users.

This new edition of Firefox is the third big new browser release this year, following new editions of Microsoft’s (MSFT) Internet Explorer and Apple’s (AAPL) Safari. Unlike Firefox, these two browsers come bundled with the two major computer platforms, Windows and Mac. By contrast, Mozilla must convince users to download Firefox, which comes in essentially identical versions for both systems. And it has done a reasonably good job, garnering by most estimates around 23% market share, versus between 60% and 70% for IE, which is by far the leader. Meanwhile, Google (GOOG)—a former Firefox supporter—has joined the battle with its nascent Chrome browser, which so far runs only on Windows, but is due on the Mac one day and is to morph into a whole new operating system next year. And there are other very capable browsers with small user bases, the most notable of which is Opera.

I’ve been using Firefox since its inception years ago, and have been testing this latest iteration, version 3.5, since it emerged June 30. I can continue to recommend it as a fine way to surf the Web. The new version is improved, and worked very well for me on both my Windows and Macintosh computers.

But, in this round of the war, Mozilla’s product no longer stands out as clearly superior, for two reasons. First, Firefox has lost its traditionally biggest advantage: greater speed than its rivals. While Firefox 3.5 is about twice as fast as the previous version 3.0, and handily beat Internet Explorer 8 in my tests, it lagged behind both Safari 4.02 and the beta edition of Chrome 2.0 a bit in most test scenarios. Overall, Safari was fastest in most of my tests, both on Mac and Windows (yes, Apple makes a little-known version of Safari for Windows).

In fact, Mozilla no longer is claiming to be the fastest browser. It now prefers to say it is one of what it calls the “modern” browsers, along with Safari and Chrome, whose under-the-hood technologies make them better at handling a growing breed of sophisticated Internet-based applications that mimic traditional computer programs like photo editors and word processors and spreadsheets.

Second, this version of Firefox has relatively few new features, and some of them are merely catch-ups to those introduced earlier by Microsoft and Apple. Most notable among these is a private browsing mode, first popularized in Safari, and greatly expanded in IE, which allows you to traverse Web sites without leaving traces on your computer to show what you’ve been doing.

Mozilla says its main goal from now on will be to turn Firefox into the ideal platform for running Web-based applications. It shares the belief, also fervently embraced by Google, that consumers will gradually migrate away from programs stored on their computers’ hard disks to those stored in “the Cloud,” the industry’s term for the servers that run the Internet.

To show this, the new Firefox can do a few new tricks, like streaming video directly from Web pages without requiring plug-ins like Adobe’s (ADBE) Flash. Alas, this works only with obscure video formats little used on the Web at the moment.

Firefox 3.5 does include some new features, in addition to private browsing. It can pinpoint your location, so that any properly configured Web site can serve up locally relevant content. It has a nice option that lets you “forget” any Web page in your history, wiping out all traces you’ve been there, even if you neglected to turn on private browsing mode beforehand. And it can recover your open tabs after a crash.

Also, Firefox continues to lead its rivals in the number and variety of third-party add-ons that enhance browsing in myriad ways, such as adding features to sites like Twitter or making bookmarking easier.

As for speed, I tested Firefox 3.5 against its main rivals by timing how long it took to launch into the same home page, and how long it took to completely load popular Web sites like Facebook and YouTube. I tested how long it took to completely load folders containing numerous sports and news sites simultaneously. I also ran an industry benchmark test that measures the browsers’ speed at handling an important Web language called JavaScript. I did these tests on the same home network on both a Dell (DELL) and an Apple computer.

While Firefox won a few of these tests, Safari and Chrome won more of them. In most cases, the speed differences weren’t large, except in the case of IE, which was dramatically slower than the others. But this is the first new version of Firefox I’ve tested that didn’t win most of the tests.

Firefox is still a great Web browser, and still much faster than its main rival, Internet Explorer. But its edge is being eroded.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.


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