After years of sluggish innovation in the Microsoft-dominated world of web browsing, a new open-source internet browser called Firefox has emerged to challenge the software giant’s Internet Explorer (IE). The upstart technology has been garnering attention in schools and colleges in recent months, as ed-tech leaders search for ways to circumvent the latest security holes in Microsoft’s proprietary solution.

Though the Firefox browser enters the market as a David in the shadow of a Goliath, several ed-tech enthusiasts believe the technology has great potential. Not only is it free, they say, but it also provides a level of security that IE–even with the release of Microsoft’s highly publicized update, Service Pack 2 (SP2)–so far has been unable to achieve.

Built by the Mozilla Foundation, Firefox is designed to spur innovation in the browser community–something many people have been waiting for since the end of the so-called “browser wars,” when IE conquered its only major competitor, Netscape, to reign supreme as the browser installed on more than 90 percent of PCs worldwide.

In schools and colleges, proponents of the new open-source competitor contend Firefox makes an enticing option.

Though the price tag doesn’t hurt, either–Firefox can be downloaded free of charge from the Mozilla Foundation web site–Tim Wilson, technology integration specialist for the 10,000-student Hopkins School District in suburban Minneapolis, says he’s considering switching to Firefox primarily for its security, among other benefits.

And he’s not alone. Citing security risks, Pennsylvania State University is urging students to drop IE in favor of alternate browsers like Firefox. In a notice sent to students Dec. 8, the school’s IT Services department recommended that students download other browsers to reduce the likelihood of attacks through the Microsoft software, online news outlet reported Dec. 9.

Not that Firefox is perfect. Like any technology, Wilson said, bugs will be exposed–eventually. And it is IE’s very ubiquity that makes it such an attractive target for wrongdoers. As Firefox gains in popularity, it is likely to draw fire from the same miscreants now sniping at IE.

Unlike the Microsoft browser, however, Firefox is not bundled with the applications commonly installed on the PC at the factory–meaning that if the new browser were to be attacked by a hacker, the attack more likely would be localized and less apt to spread throughout the entire system.

Though security is important, Wilson said, it’s not the only reason he’s considering making the switch. Firefox contains a number of subtle innovations that he said breathe life back into a browser market largely moribund during IE’s reign.

Among the most significant of these is “tabbed” browsing, which allows users to open new pages as tabs in a single window instead of opening multiple windows. According to Wilson, the technology makes for much easier organization and overall browsing of multiple sites.

Plus, Wilson said, Firefox is platform-neutral. Unlike other web browsers, including IE and Apple’s popular Safari browser, Firefox is configured to run the same on any operating system, including Linux. (Mac OS 9 and earlier versions of Apple’s Macintosh system were not supported by Firefox at press time.)

Even with the new browser’s attractive features, Firefox has a long way to go before it could unseat Microsoft’s IE as king of all browsers. Despite complaints that the software giant has been slow to update IE, Microsoft executives say they haven’t given up on the application.

“Microsoft is committed to continuing innovation on Internet Explorer and to working with developers and partners who build for Internet Explorer,” said Anthony Salcito, general manager for Microsoft Education. “We’ve done a lot of work to ensure that Windows customers have an opportunity to choose from the broadest set of third-party applications in the industry.”