Once upon a time, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) controlled a whopping 95 percent of the browser market. Within the past week, however, several news outlets picked up the story that Google Chrome has managed to upstage IE 8 as the most popular browser on the web. Of course, many pundits have been quick to point out that comparing IE 8 to Chrome isn’t a fair comparison and that IE still controls a greater share of the market than any other browser.
But the way I see it, not only has Microsoft slipped from its once lofty perch, but the company has also started to realize that it's at risk of losing serious ground in the latest round of the browser wars—to the point in which Microsoft has kicked off a half-baked policy reversal in a lame attempt to regain some lost ground.
Microsoft’s Failed Strategy
A year ago I called IE 9 a failure. A few months later I called IE 9 a leap in the wrong direction. Unsurprisingly, I was called six shades of stupid in article comments and via email. When I complained about IE 9 in my previous articles, I wasn’t complaining about the browser itself. In fact, I still vastly prefer IE 9 to Firefox, which is insanely slow and still doesn’t sandbox plug-ins enough to keep them from setting up entire ecosystems in my RAM. Instead, I was railing against both Microsoft’s shady marketing for IE and its continued wrong-headed strategy of not supporting the latest version of IE on all supported versions of Windows.
Now, before someone lashes out in the comments about me being a dinosaur with misplaced expectations that Microsoft should be required to support everything on Windows XP, let me point out that Microsoft’s continued support of XP actually baffles me. I can definitely appreciate the need to make sure that people and businesses get a decent return on their investment for an OS. But it was Microsoft, not me, that decided to ensure that XP would be fully supported until 2014.
More importantly, however, is the fact that the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, and Safari don’t have any problems providing a modern browsing experience on XP, whereas Microsoft's browsers have problems. Therefore, it’s not hard to see why Microsoft is losing browser market share. Yet Microsoft continues to move forward with its flawed strategy of coupling browsers to Windows—to the point in which IE 9 doesn’t run on XP, and IE 10 won’t run on Windows Vista.
Chrome 15 and Chrome 16
As of mid-December, StatCounter.com shows IE 8 as the most commonly used browser at 22 percent market share. Firefox 8 follows with a 16 percent market share, and Chrome 15 and Chrome 16 have a 14 percent and 11 percent share, respectively. Of course, this is because the stats for the week in question actually include an automatic rollout of Chrome 16, which will replace Chrome 15. Meaning that in a few days, Chrome 16 will be left with nearly 25 percent market share—pushing it ahead of IE 8.
Yes, all versions of IE still own 37 to 39 percent of the market (at 22 percent for IE 8, 11 percent for IE 9, 4 percent for IE 7, and nearly 2 percent controlled by the aging and detested IE 6). I get that. But I don’t think it tells the whole story. Instead, I think IE 8 is the current champion of the IE line, not IE 9. In fact, when it comes right down to it, Microsoft has a big problem when it comes to adoption of its newest browser—manifested by the fact that adoption for IE 9 is only half of IE 8’s current market share.
Part of that is because of Microsoft’s poor strategy. By some calculations, XP still represents 25 to 45 percent of today's OS market—a potentially large chunk of users compared to mobile or tablet users. Yet, Microsoft is strategically determined not to provide a modern browsing experience for this huge population, at least not with IE. It's no wonder IE 8 controls so much market share, yet IE's dominance continues to wane.
Microsoft Changes Its Policy; Starts Automatic Updates of Browsers
If only there was a way for Microsoft to force reluctant users to upgrade to a more modern version of IE. Maybe then Microsoft could stem the tide of its declining market share. That’s how Google has continued to increase market share without fracturing its user-base over a host of different versions. Well, that, and by also offering features and functionality that end users prefer over those found in Firefox and IE 9.
However, if Microsoft were to reverse previous policies (now that the Department of Justice isn’t watching over its shoulder), XP users could only ever at best be upgraded to IE 8—a browser lacking HTML5 functionality that isn’t the company's latest and greatest offering. Even if Microsoft undertook such an effort, all it would be doing is spinning its wheels in a frantic attempt to retain market share.
Sadly, we learned this week that Microsoft is now going to start pushing automatic upgrades of IE across XP, Vista, and 7. This is sad because Microsoft is simultaneously trying to claim that automatic updates are best for consumers, developers, and enterprises, which is something that I wholeheartedly believe. Yet, Microsoft simply can’t deliver on what it’s claiming to support because it’s hamstrung by it’s design choices.
When it comes to consumers running XP, the best that web developers can expect is that their sites will be running on a slow, crappy, non-HTML5 browser that Microsoft disparaged when it was so eager to release IE 9 upon the world as a modern browser. Likewise, we'll have to listen to Microsoft try to sound tough and serious when it states that enterprises are more secure when running its latest and greatest browser—unless, of course, those enterprises chose not to be secure (because Microsoft respects the choice to run outdated and less-secure browsers).
Even if I believed that Microsoft is trying to ensure a better environment for consumers, developers, and enterprises, the reality is that the company's failed strategy of coupling the browser to the OS has turned out to be the step in the wrong direction. Moreover, as more and more sites continue to focus on increased adoption of HTML5 functionality and capabilities, it’s hard not to envision a future in which Chrome continues to build momentum at the expense of IE, simply because Chrome works on XP, whereas IE 9 doesn’t. Consequently, unless Microsoft reverses its strategy with IE 10 (enabling it to run on XP and Vista), it’s hard to see how IE will end up holding on to second place if current trends continue.