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A rising star even Microsoft can't snuff out

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A clever fox is sneaking into Microsoft's henhouse, and some observers are warning that though it won't steal any valuable software itself, it could leave the door open to more ravenous invaders if the software giant isn't careful.

The intruder is Firefox, an Internet browser used to surf the Web - display pages and interact with them. In recent years, Microsoft has monopolized browsing with its ubiquitous Internet Explorer (IE), the familiar blue "e" on millions of computer screens. But IE is under heavy criticism for being riddled with security flaws, allowing pop-up ads, spyware, and viruses to infect computers.

On the other hand Firefox, officially launched last November, has won glowing reviews from technical experts as a much safer browser with better features. In just over two months, it has grabbed about 5 percent of the market, while IE has dropped from more than 95 percent to just over 90 percent.

Developed by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, Firefox can be downloaded free of charge at www.mozilla.org. IE is bundled together with other Windows programs and thus is essentially free as well.

So what's at stake?

Firefox may turn out to be the first big success for the "open source" movement, which holds that software should be free to users and its workings available to anyone who wants to study or improve on them.

If Firefox keeps growing, "it would be the first open-source product to take market share back from a Microsoft product," says Greg DeMichillie, a senior analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm. Though Microsoft doesn't make money on IE, it does on Office, a group of popular programs used by businesses and individuals. OpenOffice is a free open-source alternative. If Firefox can take 15 or 20 percent of the market from Microsoft, he adds, "then I think Microsoft has to worry that that could happen to Office."

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