The Mozilla Foundation has released version 1.0 of its open-source Firefox browser, with lofty expectations of real competition with Internet Explorer.

A preview release available since last month has been downloaded over eight million times, the Mozilla Foundation boasted.

The buzz surrounding Firefox has been fuelled by several factors, including the product's quality, said Joe Wilcox, a Jupiter Research analyst. "The Mozilla team has done a really good job with the browser. It's lean and mean," Wilcox said.

Then there's the widespread perception that Explorer is vulnerable to security breaches. "There's the fear surrounding Explorer over potential exploits," Wilcox said. "We hear a lot about the potential vulnerabilities but not so much about the exploits of those vulnerabilities."

And then there is Microsoft's failure to develop Explorer. "It's as if Microsoft fought hard to win the browser wars and then abandoned the territory," he said, adding that during the height of the browser wars, Microsoft cranked out three significant IE upgrades in 18 months. "Now we've been sitting essentially on the same version of IE for the past three or four years. Just because Microsoft isn't advancing there's no reason why others shouldn't."

The Mozilla Foundation expects Firefox to own a browser market share of between 10 percent and 12 percent at some point next year, and to continue growing strongly thereafter, said Chris Hofmann, the Mozilla Foundation's engineering director. Convinced that a majority of users are dissatisfied with their browsing experience, the Mozilla Foundation sees "a huge opportunity" for Firefox.

Firefox backers maintain it is inherently more secure than IE, but, according to Wilcox, it is still too early to say because Firefox hasn't been around long enough yet to be targeted by hackers. "To Explorer's advantage, Microsoft is investing huge amounts of money and resources in tracking down and plugging the security holes. In theory, that means Explorer has gone through its worst shakedown and that it's pretty safe," he said. "Firefox has yet to face the foxes and their fire."

However, the Mozilla Foundation's Hofmann said that there are concrete architectural differences that make Firefox more secure than Explorer, including the decision to not include in Firefox support for Microsoft's ActiveX technology on the belief that such support makes a browser vulnerable to spyware, viruses and malicious hackers.

Firefox 1.0 is available in 12 languages for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux from Mozilla's website as a free download or in CD format with a user's manual for $14.95.

It features an integrated pop-up ad blocker, and safeguards against online scams such as phishing and spoofing by displaying secure sites' identities. It consolidates multiple Web pages into a single Window (tabbed browsing). It can also import bookmarks, passwords and cookies.