Worried about catching viruses, spyware, or other malicious software while surfing the Web?
If you're among the nine in 10 people using Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer, you may be a candidate to join the increasing number of users turning to alternative Web browsers that experts say are less prone to security flaws and offer newer features.
Firefox, a free Web browser developed by a far-flung group of software programers, has been chipping away at Internet Explorer's dominant position since its debut last year.
Although Firefox offers some features not found in Microsoft's dominant Internet browser, such as the ability to display several Web pages within a single window, many users say that they are switching because of Internet's Explorer's security holes and malicious software targeting such software flaws.
"The big thing for me was spyware," said Adam Philipp, a Seattle attorney who switched to Firefox in order to avoid the infiltration of programs that generate unwanted pop-up ads and secretly record a computer users' activities.
"I was looking for an alternative," said Philipp, "When I found Firefox, it was faster, more functional and more secure."
The increase in the number Firefox users came despite Microsoft's three year-long effort to boost the security and reliability of its products under an initiative called "Trustworthy Computing."
To be sure, Microsoft has started to deliver automated software updates for Internet Explorer as well as for the Windows XP (news - web sites) operating system. Last year, the Redmond, Washington company deployed a major interim update to Windows XP that included security enhancements for Internet Explorer, including a pop-up ad blocker.
But critics say such moves by Microsoft were too little, too late, which have led to the rapid rise in the popularity of Firefox and other Web browsers.
According to Web statistics tracking firm WebSideStory Inc., Internet Explorer held a 90.3 percent share of U.S. browser usage at the middle of January, compared with a 95.5 percent share in mid-2004.
Nearly 5 percent of Web surfers now use Firefox.
In addition to having fewer security risks, proponents of Firefox say that its other innovations are attracting users with features such as the ability to open multiple Web pages within a single window on the desktop and rich variety of plug-ins to enhance the browser's functionality.
BROWSER WARS AGAIN?
But don't expect a repeat of the frenzied browser wars of the late 1990s. Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, an independent research company, said that Firefox's growth will probably be limited because big companies will stick to Internet Explorer.
"Corporations like to standardize," Rosoff said, "It's extra work to roll out an extra browser."
For technophiles looking for alternatives, there are also other browsers available. Norway's Opera Software (OPERA.OL) makes a competing browser and there are also browsers based on Internet Explorer, such as Maxthon.
Apple Computer Inc. (Nasdaq:AAPL - news) has its own browser, called Safari, for its Macintosh (news - web sites) computers.
Microsoft has said it will focus on enhancing Internet Explorer's security features and on a major upgrade for the next release of Windows, code-named Longhorn, due out in 2006.
Competition between Microsoft and Firefox isn't anything new, when you consider that the rivalry actually goes back a few years.
Firefox is based on the Mozilla browser, which itself is based on much of the underlying software code from Netscape, the Web browser that was instrumental in the Internet's growth in the 1990s.
Instead of a company, however, a network of programers called the Mozilla Foundation jointly develops the Firefox browser, in order to create an alternative to the dominant browser platform.
Netscape was overtaken by Microsoft's Internet Explorer in the late 1990s, sparking the Justice Department (news - web sites)'s landmark antitrust case against Microsoft.
Critics of Internet Explorer argue that Microsoft essentially stopped making innovations to the browser after it gained its overwhelming market share.
Meanwhile, Mozilla's backers have gone on the offensive and took out a full page advertisement in the New York Times a couple months ago promoting the upstart browser.
And its also appears to be benefiting thanks to another popular marketing channel -- word of mouth.
"Any time I hear somebody complaining about their Web experience (on Internet Explorer), it will almost certainly trigger an invitation from me to try out Firefox," said Philipp.
Doing so doesn't cost anything. Firefox can be downloaded free from http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/.