Web Browsers Jockeying for Usage Share as 2011 Dawns

The New Year holiday is barely behind us, but all the major web browser vendors are positioning themselves for another year of market share and mindshare battles. Microsoft announced some milestones for Internet Explorer (IE), focusing on the success of newer versions instead of its overall falling share. Mozilla seized the top spot in Europe even as its overall share has flat-lined for over a year. And new industry darling Google Chrome leapt to 10 percent usage share by the end of 2010, and is poised for even more growth this year—all at the expense of IE.

Microsoft was first out of the gate this year with some good news: Its in-beta IE 9 browser has seen more than 20 million downloads since its September 2010 release, good for almost one half of one percentage point of usage share (about .46 percent). I'll leave the marketing to Microsoft, but it's fair to say that IE 9 surpasses all other browsers from a performance standpoint, thanks to its deep ties to Windows hardware-acceleration capabilities, and the browser makes some important gains in standards compliance, as well. It's a solid, well-conceived release.

Microsoft's spin on overall IE success, however, deserves some scrutiny. The company is touting the decline in share of its older, unsafe IE 6 version, which dropped to an all-time low of 13.8 percent usage share by the end of 2010; this indicates that businesses and some users, finally, are dropping IE 6 to adopt more modern browsers. And that's good news: IE 6 is unfit for duty these days, as it's a decade old and was designed in a different era.

The problem is that users aren't always opting for newer versions of IE when they upgrade. Though "modern Internet Explorer browsers" now account for 34 percent of all web traffic, according to Net Applications, IE's overall usage share fell during much of 2010 and is down, year over year, yet again.  In fact, IE's usage-share losses in December were its biggest one-month decline in over two years. IE now commands about 57 percent of the entire web browser market—a new low since the late 1990s.

For Microsoft, IE 9 can't happen quickly enough, but even the release of that browser—two long years after the release of its predecessor, IE 8—won't be enough. (Two years is considered a quick turnaround at Microsoft, which once went five years between upgrades.) If Microsoft is going to seriously compete with its younger and faster-moving competition, it's going to have to adopt a more streamlined development cycle. And perhaps the answer is to drop the version numbers and simply add features—especially support for web standards—on an ongoing basis going forward.

The number-two player in the market, Mozilla Firefox, is also showing signs of slowness. Mozilla has struggled to release any version of its flagship product on time, and the latest version, Firefox 4.0, has been delayed many times and has jettisoned a number of expected features. Currently in an eighth beta release, Firefox 4 is now expected in early 2011—which is Mozilla-speak for mid-2011.

While Firefox's usage share has flat-lined in recent years, it's not all bad news for the browser: According to StatCounter, Firefox is now the number-one most frequently used web browser in Europe, having deposed IE. Firefox commands 38 percent of the market there—about double its worldwide share—compared with 37.5 percent for IE. Even this news, however, is tinged with problems for Firefox: It turns out that Firefox's win in Europe has more to do with IE losing share to Google Chrome than to any growth in Mozilla's own product.

And then there's Chrome. Google's browser has undergone a frenzied series of updates since its initial release just over two years ago and is now already at version 10. Chrome has always been about simplicity, performance, and standards compliance, and each release has fine-tuned the browser's capabilities. But underlying Chrome is an OS layer that will form the basis of a thin and light OS called ChromeOS, which Google expects to ship on a variety of PC-class devices this year.

Chrome has undergone tremendous growth over the past year, jumping to over 10 percent of the market by the end of 2010, twice its share from the same period a year earlier. And many expect Chrome to once again double its usage share in 2011.

As in Europe, Chrome's success worldwide has come largely from stealing share from IE, with Firefox basically sitting still from a share perspective. What this is all leading toward—unless something changes—is a situation in which the worldwide usage share for the top three browsers (IE, Firefox, and Chrome) is roughly identical. This has never been the case before, with first Netscape and then Microsoft dominating the web-browser market since its inception.

And this, folks, is the problem for Microsoft in a nutshell. With PC users turning away from native applications and to web-based solutions in droves, web browsers are more important than ever because they're the portal through which users access their applications. Taken to a far-enough extreme, we see the realization of Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen's dream to reduce Windows to "a poorly debugged set of device drivers." Windows, in case you've really not paid attention, is Microsoft core product. And if that product is made superfluous—after all, Chrome and Firefox work just as well on Linux and Mac OS X as they do on Windows—then the entire company's future is in doubt.

It won't happen overnight. Heck, it probably won't happen at all. But this is one doomsday scenario that should be keeping Microsoft's seemingly endless supply of vice presidents up at night. What keeps me up at night is that it doesn't seem to be keeping them awake at all.

TAGS: Windows 8
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