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Firefox now faces new Web browser competition

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California (Reuters) - Firefox woke up competition in the sleepy Web browser arena dominated by Microsoft Internet Explorer when no one else would take on the software giant, and now finds itself facing its own rivals.

Since Firefox ate into Microsoft’s near-monopoly five years ago, Apple’s Safari has been released for Windows and Google offered its Chrome browser in September. Norway’s Opera was already there.

“No one chooses to have Apple, Microsoft and Google as your competitors,” said Mitchell Baker, who heads the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, whose unit Mozilla Corp makes Firefox.

Baker said Firefox’s edge is that as an open source product it can draw on the ideas of thousands of programmers around the world and massage them into a consumer product.

“Our leadership comes through our unique ability to take ideas generated by others, understand what the really important points are, and to apply that to a general consumer audience,” she said.

Baker says that Firefox has “an enormous funnel for new ideas” from thousands of programmers around the world who offer ideas. Firefox’s edge is to filter and shape the ideas.

The stakes are enormous because the Web browser may be the single most important application today, serving as the Internet gateway to webmail, news, social networking, want-ads, e-commerce, games, YouTube, movies, banking and, notoriously, gambling and pornography.

Firefox began in 2004 facing a monolithic market dominated by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

“NO COMPETITION

“There was no competition and Microsoft had no incentive to invest. IE (Internet Explorer) pretty much languished,” said David Smith, an analyst for Gartner. Mozilla saw this as a moment of opportunity for a nonprofit open-source company.

“Our product appeared at the moment when things were becoming unbearable,” Baker said. IE had failed to deal with problems such as pop-up ads that had become uncontrollable. Firefox did and took some of Microsoft’s share.

“It’s really only after Firefox came out of nowhere that Microsoft came out with the next version of IE,” said Smith.

Today Firefox has 20 percent of the browser market, Microsoft 70 percent-plus, and Apple Safari 6.5 percent, according to marketshare.hitslink.com. Chrome and Opera have less than one percent, although some reviewers describe Opera’s mobile browser as the best.

“There’s a glass ceiling” for rivals to Apple and Windows, because many consumers will not bother to change the browser that comes with their machine, says Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC. Baker disagrees.

“If all Chrome does is fragment the market further, then I’d say that is a failure for Google,” she said.

Google put money into developing a browser bridging the gap between desktop and ‘cloud computing,’ PC World noted. Google specializes in cloud computing, providing applications that run on central servers. Baker says that Mozilla is different because it is not trying to tie Firefox into other products. And it lacks the resources of its huge rivals.

“We can’t spend our way to success,” says Baker. “We live and die by the size of the community of people who volunteer to build, ship and distribute our product.”

Reporting by David Lawsky; Editing by Brian Moss

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