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The party’s over.

In the past year, the little browser that could, Firefox, became the people’s hero, an underdog warrior that took a huge swipe at its enemy, Internet Explorer. IE dipped below 90 percent market share for the first time in years, while Firefox lured users like the Pied Piper, blowing past its own fundraising goals and reigniting the browser wars.

Meanwhile, the bad news continued to mount for Microsoft. An IE exploit put even Windows XP SP2 users at risk from phishing schemes, even as Microsoft touted SP2 as the most secure version of Windows yet. Worse, major security companies and the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team began to recommend that computer users dump IE for something more secure (read: Firefox).

By early this year, Netscape was emboldened to reenter the fray, announcing in January that it would release a new version of the Netscape browser, designed specifically to resist phishing schemes–something even Firefox lacks. Then, Opera said it would offer free licenses to universities, in order to make sure it would still be relevant in the new world browser order. And through it all, what was the response from Microsoft? Silence.

For a moment there, it looked like the tyrant IE could actually be overthrown. Those were heady days, weren’t they? Well, they’re over now. Papa Bill just dropped the hammer. Bill Gates announced this week, at the RSA Security Conference in San Francisco (of all places), that Microsoft will ship Internet Explorer 7, without waiting for the next version of Windows. Gates says the standalone browser is designed to address the perception that IE itself is a massive security risk. What he didn’t say, but you know he was thinking it, is that IE 7 will easily put a stop to this upstart browser rebellion.

Don’t believe me? You should. Firefox is great, I use it. But it’s a chore sometimes, what with most sites using that pesky nonstandard IE code. Not everything renders properly, and some sites just plain don’t work–I have to load up IE to use them. Plus, let’s be honest–Firefox has its flaws. Why is there no way to check for updates from within the browser, for one thing? Why does it take so doggone long to launch? Why, why must it crash every single time I open a PDF? I mean, every single time. Opera, fine, whatever, I’m not paying for a browser, and for some reason, although I’ve tried it several times, it’s just never captured me. It’s too clunky, and I was raised on IE. I don’t want to learn something completely new. IE, on the other hand, is like the sweeping tide–it’s just easier not to fight it.

If a standalone IE 7 is even 50 percent more secure than current versions, the Firefox rebellion is finished. If IE 7 has tabs, Firefox will be destroyed as surely as the Hungarian uprising of 1956 was crushed by Russia. I use the analogy deliberately, too–no one expected Microsoft to issue a standalone version of IE, but those months of silence (and, no doubt, frantic development) look awfully ominous now. This is a company that’s absorbed Justice Department lawsuits, threats of daily fines from the European Union, and lawsuits from nearly every state in the union, and that has steadfastly refused to break up its republic of Windows-IE-Windows Media. But this Firefox thing must have it fearing the domino effect, big time.

It was bad when Microsoft seemed to ignore Firefox, treating it like a harmless upstart not worthy of comment or attack. But now that the sleeping giant has awakened, I think the buzzing gnat of the browser wars is about to be squashed flat. What do you think?

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