Firefox is one of the great success stories of the Web in last decade. A free, open-source descendant of the once-powerful Netscape browser, Firefox was released to the public in late 2004 to immediate acclaim and popularity. In its first year alone it enjoyed one hundred million downloads.

Its elegant interface compared to that of the aging Internet Explorer 6 helped win over many users, and it popularized now-standard features like tabbed browsing and download management. The user base kept growing and by 2009 its market share was up to 30%.

However, in the past year Firefox has seen its growth plateau in the face of increased pressure from upstarts like Google Chrome and an impending revision of Internet Explorer. Where does Firefox stand in relation to its competition today?

What’s Great About Firefox

Lightweight Interface: Firefox helped pioneer the trend away from bloating the interface with new features. By default Firefox includes the most common features one needs: for many users this will be enough, while those that wish to fine-tune their browsing experience are still able to do so via Firefox’s robust add-ons and customization options.

Add-ons: One of the key reasons for Firefox’s success is undoubtedly its wide range of third-party add-ons. These extensions include anything from interface modifications, such as refinements to tabbed browsing and download management systems, to support for existing technologies like Flash and Java, not to mention the myriad of functionality upgrades such as browser-based Twitter notifications. Installing and updating add-ons is by-and-large a painless process in Firefox.

Open-source: The involvement of the open-source community is a large contributing factor to Firefox’s success, especially due to the community’s investment in its development and the product’s flexibility in encouraging public contributions. On top of the legion of user-built add-ons, an estimated forty percent of the work on the product itself comes from outside volunteers. The community is crucial for its localization efforts, which have led to it being the most widely localized product on the market today.

Security: Firefox is not completely blemish-free in terms of past security holes, but it does have a history of having its issues fixed at a much more rapid rate than Internet Explorer. The browser is equipped with a powerful popup-blocker, and if one wants more stringent protection from potential threats there are many useful add-ons available.

Firefox Challenges

Compatibility: Firefox is completely compatible with the majority of web sites. However, one may run across the occasional case where a site may be compatible only with Internet Explorer. Often these are sites built using older components rather than cross-browser friendly JavaScript, but until the last of these sites are upgraded this risk will remain. Additionally, as of today Firefox has also not fully implemented the latest HTML5/CSS3 specifications, so the most cutting edge web sites may not yet be compatible with Firefox until its next major release.

Video: The Web is inching towards HTML5 video, which removes the need for an add-on to play video over the Web and streamlines the experience for both user and developer. Unfortunately, patent and licensing issues have prevented Firefox from integrating the most popular Web video format into the browser. The major video sites like YouTube will eventually support the rest of the major formats as well, but with sites having less resources to cover all bases it runs the risk of future incompatibility.

JavaScript performance: More and more web sites are integrating highly interactive features built using JavaScript. Firefox has few compatibility issues, but the speed of its JavaScript engine runs around middle of the pack in browser testing. It received an upgrade less than a year ago and will receive another major upgrade with its next release. Most web site performance will be acceptable, but highly interactive sites may be better experienced in Chrome for the time being.

The Verdict on Firefox

Despite the fierce competition in the browser market, Firefox remains a solid second behind Internet Explorer in terms of popularity. Canada in particular remains a hotbed of Firefox users; in terms of recent upgrades, it ranks in the top ten nations across the world. While other browsers may be catching up in terms of features and add-ons, the sheer breadth of community support will ensure that Firefox will keep enjoying a healthy, productive life.

But don’t take our word for it: download Firefox and try it for yourself!