Microsofts Internet Explorer has been the browser of choice (or coercion) ever since Microsoft packaged it with its Windows 98 operating system. By bundling the browser with the operating system and making it the default browser for Windows users, Microsoft easily took the market lead away from Netscapes Navigator. Now, however, theres some evidence that security issues may be loosening IEs grip.

One of the problems with being the market leader is that everyone is gunning for you, and on the Web that means hackers. In the case of IE, the hackers came looking for vulnerabilities, and they found them.

Thats why the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) recommended in June that users ditch IE. Two weeks ago, the German Federal Office for Information Security (the central IT security service provider for the German government) called IE hazard-prone and recommended that users select an alternative.

And other browsers are available. Users now have highly regarded alternatives like Opera and Firefox to turn to. Earlier this month, Firefox (a product of the Mozilla open-source project) released version 1.0. More than 1 million users downloaded the browser in just four days. According to the Web analytics firm WebSideStory, the percentage of visitors to e-commerce sites who used Firefox or another Mozilla browser grew to 5.2 percent in September. IE still holds a commanding 93.7 percent share in that category, but it has watched that margin drop from 95.5 percent in June.

What may really get the ball rolling for Firefox and other alternatives is Microsofts announcement last week that it would not create new security updates for older versions of Windows (2000, 98, ME and 95). That means that anyone who wants a secure browser will have to update to Windows XP, which accommodates the new Service Pack 2, and its security updates for IE. Does Microsoft really expect the 49.2 percent of some 390 million users worldwide who dont have XP users (including this writer) to plunk down $99 in order to more safely surf the Web using I.E.?

The next version of IE likely wont be released until Microsoft finishes its new version of Windows, called Longhorn. That wont happen until 2006. What will your company do in the meantime? Will you stick with IE, or adopt one of the alternatives? Tell us what you think.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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