Alternative web browsers Firefox, Safari and Opera are chipping away at Internet Explorer's popularity, slowly stealing market share from Microsoft's still-dominant browser, and a push for increased security might be to thank.

Gains for the alternative browsers have been slow on a month-to-month basis, with Mozilla’s Firefox seeing a 0.41-percent growth rate from January to last month. Safari’s market share grew from 4.7 percent to 4.85 percent during that time, while Opera moved from 0.73 percent to 0.79 percent and Netscape fell from 0.79 percent to 0.74 percent, according to Net Applications, a small-and-medium enterprise business-monitoring firm.

However, the market growth of third-party browsers has been more pronounced annually.

From March 2006 to last month, the total market share of Internet Explorer has fallen from 85 percent to 79.09 percent. During the same period, Firefox has increased its share from 10 percent to 14.18 percent, and Safari has gained 1.66 percent (from 3.19 percent to 4.85 percent).

In the past year, Opera has leapfrogged Netscape as the fourth-most-popular browser. In March 2006, Opera owned 0.54 percent of the browser market, a figure now at 0.79 percent. Meanwhile, Netscape has dipped from 1.05 percent to 0.74 percent.

Vincent Vizzaccaro, executive vice president or marketing and strategic relationships, told SCMagazine.com today that the trend of alternative browsers gaining market share should continue barring a groundbreaking product from Microsoft.

"I think that people are accustomed to thinking of Opera and Firefox as being the innovators," he said. "I think the trend continues unless there is a brand new feature that Microsoft has in the works that no one knows about."

John Pescatore, Gartner analyst, told SCMagazine.com today that growth in alternative browsers is due to an increase in Linux desktops, as well as security concerns.

"I think there’ve been two factors – one is the growth in Linux applications and desktops," he said. "On Windows machines, the growth has been due mostly to spyware."

Firefox, Safari and Opera have partially built their popularity on security.

Malicious users have been wise to the trend, however, increasing attacks against third-party browsers. Research has warned that alternative browsers will be increasingly targeted in future attacks.

The release of Internet Explorer 7 (IE7), with additional security features, shows Microsoft has caught on to the trend, said Pescatore.

"I think that IE7 has made some pretty good steps forward in anti-spyware, anti-phishing and tabbed browsing," he said. "(The growth in alternative browsers) really started about two years ago, when spyware was the big issue. Basically what happened was that Microsoft stopped innovating both in security and browsing (with Internet Explorer), and now with IE7 they’ve shown that they’ve started to innovate again."

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