If Microsoft doesn’t improve customers will go elsewhere

America’s economy puts an emphasis on free markets. The idea is that the better product will win and consumer needs will be taken care of by those that see the potential for a product. Microsoft and its dominating product line of software and operating systems will soon experience this concept first-hand if their product line isn’t improved.

When the Internet bubble was at its peak in the ’90s, several companies competed to offer Web users the best browser. Netscape was largely established as the browser of choice when Microsoft decided to take them on. With the entire financial might of Microsoft at its disposal, Internet Explorer soon became the most widely used browser.

But once Microsoft stopped upgrading the software’s technology, it became incompatible with many new standards and has such gaping security holes that even brand new PCs with all pertinent security patches installed are swarming with viruses and spyware within minutes if the Internet Explorer is used.

While the browser is only one of the many products Microsoft makes, it is a good example of a decent product becoming stale because the company focused its attention elsewhere.

The gap is now being filled with new browsers. Firefox, the most widely used new browser, is offered free of charge and has far less security problems. It uses the latest Web design and security standards. Within weeks of its release, Web sites started reporting skyrocketing Firefox usage. It is now estimated that Firefox is used for about 5 percent of Web pages accessed.

Considering Firefox was started by a group of teenagers fed up with the inadequacies they saw in Microsoft’s browser, Microsoft’s shortcomings become even more evident. Based on free and open standards rather than the guarded proprietary standards used by Microsoft, Firefox is an open-source project that thrives on user input. It is now widely regarded to be a far better product than what was once one of Microsoft’s flagships.

Microsoft announced a new version of Internet Explorer Tuesday. But until the product is actually released it will be what is generally referred to as “vaporware,” amounting to nothing more than a promise.

Based on past promises about raising security standards that never materialized, users cannot be put at fault for not holding their breath.

Microsoft is experiencing the loss of faith in their products within their own walls. Wired magazine caused some stir when it reported an overwhelming number of Microsoft employees used iPods. Even members of the Windows Media development team declared their love for the device. Bearing in mind that the iPod does not play any Windows Media files — a closed standard Microsoft has been pushing — this suggests that even Microsoft’s own employees know their products are being outclassed in many regards.

For the average user, any such competition is a good thing, as it forces even giants like Microsoft to keep pushing the envelope.

For Microsoft, this means focusing more on quality and less on quantity. If they do not, users will likely abandon their products in search for better alternatives.