As someone who'd happily swap my new washing powder for two boxes of my old one, I don't take much notice of consumer vox pops. But when the video bloggers Rocketboom collared a few American shoppers and asked them whether they preferred Internet Explorer or Firefox for browsing the net, the results were enlightening. Clued-up kids praised the security of Mozilla's Firefox, while supporters of Microsoft's Internet Explorer gave unconvincing reasons for their preference, such as: "Er, I don't know what Firefox is." It's tempting to ignore advice from evangelical geeks, but in this case they might be worth heeding.
At its peak in 2002, Explorer was used by approximately 96 per cent of internet users, mainly because it came free with every PC running Windows. Today, six weeks after the launch of its latest version, Firefox already has around 10 per cent of the market and rising. There are many reasons: a sleeker interface, the ability to pause downloads, tabbed browsing (enabling multiple pages to be viewed in one window) and an array of extensions. But the biggest issue for Windows is security. This week has seen hackers hijacking PCs using rogue image files discreetly placed on the web; unlike Firefox, Explorer opens these WMF files automatically, and security experts are bracing themselves for a deluge of anxious calls. Firefox has security issues, too, but a successful attack on the more widely-used Explorer generates more kudos for hackers. They'll inevitably seek out similar weaknesses in Firefox as it gains popularity, but Mozilla's responses on this front have, so far, been speedy.
Being in the majority does have advantages. Most websites are written with Explorer in mind and misbehave on other browsers. But Microsoft's abandonment of their Mac version and the tardiness in releasing an update for the Windows version seems to signal a shift to Firefox. Google recommends it for some of its services, Dell are including it with new PCs, and Firefox extensions such as Allpeers are eagerly awaited. One Microsoft enthusiast recently wailed on his blog: "How many times do you have to stab yourself to bleed to death?" It depends what you're using, but Firefox is looking pretty sharp.