In the Internet-browser game, the idea of beating No. 1 Microsoft, whose Internet Explorer comes automatically bundled on most Windows computers, is so far out of reach that other players try for the next best thing: second place.
Opera, the Norway-based company that has created an alternative browser for computers and mobile devices, has visions of unseating Mozilla Corp., maker of the Firefox browser, for that second-place position.
To do that, Opera started doing last week what Microsoft and Mozilla (www.mozilla.org) have been doing for some time: giving away the flagship product. Previously, Opera (www.opera.com) had offered two versions of its desktop browser -- a free one supported by ads placed in the browser and a $39 ad-free version.
Giving away the product doesn't automatically mean the company will come into hard financial times. The browser has a built-in search function that allows users to consult Google without opening up another window. Every time a user searches through the Google tool, the search engine pays Opera.
In its early days, Microsoft's Internet Explorer played second to Netscape Navigator -- until the software giant started bundling its browser on computers running Windows 95. But since then, other browsers have held only cult status among consumers.
That seems to be changing.
Internet Explorer, with hundreds of millions of active users, still dominates but has slipped from 95 percent to about 89 percent of the market share over the last year, according to research firm WebSideStory. Mozilla's Firefox, with 40 million to 50 million users, reports a market share of about 4 percent. Opera, which says it has between 10 million and 15 million users, carries about 1 percent.
Fans of both alternative browsers have praised similar features: Web pages that load faster and special browser tabs that help keep pages organized, for example. Pop-up ads have long been a thing of the past for users of these browsers because special blocking software is built in.
Firefox allows users to download and install a wide range of "plug-in" programs that expand the browser's look and functions. Opera allows users to automatically open the same tabbed windows whenever the program is launched. The Opera browser also lets users zoom in on a Web page or adjust the pages for easier viewing on small laptop computer screens.
A year ago, a spurt of computer-security problems that took advantage of weaknesses in Internet Explorer motivated people to try alternative browsers such as Firefox.
Mozilla argues that its browser is inherently more secure because it is more selective about how it lets Web pages behave. But if Web surfers suddenly move to another browser, hackers will simply shift their attacks, security experts have said. Computer security firm Symantec Corp. undermined that selling point further in a report released last week, saying that flaws are being discovered more quickly and that hackers can use computer code to quickly take control of computers cruising the Web with unpatched versions of Firefox.
Though Microsoft was slow to add security features, the rekindled competition posed by Opera and Firefox may have snapped it out of its complacency. Consumers who had never heard of the alternative browsers are now faithful users, a shift that forced Microsoft, which went years without a major update, to add popular features to its product -- tabbed browsing and tools to block pop-up ads among them.