A key feature in version 8.0 of Netscape Communication's Web browser may have deflated the Netscape browser's market share by as much as half earlier this year - while artificially boosting the market share of rivals Firefox and Internet Explorer, a Web tracking firm said Tuesday.

Launched in March, Netscape 8.0 lets users switch back and forth between two different modes of displaying Web pages - one based on Firefox's open-source code and another based on IE code. That ensures pages built to display correctly on IE also load fully on Firefox.

The switching feature led Web sites and Web tracking tools to misregister Netscape 8.0 users as either Firefox or IE users, according to Vince Vizzacarro, executive vice president of marketing at NetApplications.com.

Outfox Firefox

Rather than boosting its user base, Netscape's launch of Netscape 8.0 led to a drop in the browser's total market share, from 1.8 per cent in March to 1.5 per cent in July, putting it in fourth place behind Apple's Safari browser, which had 1.7 per cent, according to NetApplications. Meanwhile, Firefox's share grew from 6.7 per cent to 8.7 per cent between March and June 2005, according to NetApplications.com.

"We discovered the flaw in June and fixed the issue in our 8.02 update in July," said Netscape spokesman Andrew Weinstein. "Hopefully, this will bring our market share up to where it should be."

Vizzacarro estimates that Netscape might have gained "a couple of percentage points" if not for the fact that Web analystics companies were misregistering Netscape users.

Netscape's great escape

Indeed, from July to September, the America Online unit's browser gained 44 per cent more users, ending August with 2.2 per cent of the total market. Vizzacarro expects Netscape to continue gaining users, especially next year, when HP begins installing Netscape on all of its new computers as an alternative to IE.

"It could result in a huge jump in Netscape's market share," said Vizzacarro.

Firefox, which is supported by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, has lost share since Netscape fixed its bug, falling to 7.6 per cent in September. A Firefox representative said the browser has been downloaded nearly 100 million times but otherwise declined to comment.

IE, which had been losing share to Firefox through the middle of 2005, has slowed its decline in recent months. It still holds a commanding 87 per cent of the market.

War goes on

The browser market was a key battleground during the late 1990s, with early leader Netscape eventually ceding the market to Microsoft, which bundled Internet Explorer with Windows and gave it away for free.

The browser battle had such large symbolic importance that it even became the focus of a Department of Justice antitrust suit against Microsoft. Today's browser wars have large monetary stakes: Web browser operators get paid whenever their users click on built-in tool bars to directly access search engines such as Google or Ask Jeeves or retailers such as Amazon.com or eBay. Search advertising is expected to be a $5 billion industry this year, according to Internet Advertising Bureau figures.

All change

Besides Netscape's bindling deal with HP, Firefox and IE are both trying to one-up each other with major updates. In particular, IE, which has seen its share fall under 90 per cent for the first time in many years, hopes improved security and usability features in Version 7 will win back users. Beta 1 of IE 7 is now being tested by Web developers; Microsoft is expected to release the final version to the public by next spring.

Microsoft's dominance could be further tested if Internet search giant Google gets into Web browsing, Vizzacarro said.

"If Google announces a Web browser, they become an instant competitor to Internet Explorer," he said. "Then it starts to get a little scary for Microsoft."