The Browser Wars: Another Milestone

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence lack of links)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

As you know, I’m into milestones, and another one has been passed in recent days: Microsoft’s market share of browsers is down below 60%.

Now this may not sound very exciting to you, but it is. And you are to be congratulated. Because it’s you who have made it happen.

Let me explain.

A couple of years ago, when I started training journalists on things digital, I used to ask them what browser they used. They either answered Internet Explorer—Microsoft’s browser, which comes with Windows—or they would look blankly at me.

The truth is that since the demise of Netscape in the late 1990s, there really hasn’t been much of a battle between the browsers. Most Windows users accepted Internet Explorer, while Mac users settled for the Apple browser Safari.

So when I would ask the class whether they had heard of Firefox, the Open Source browser, they would again look blank, or bored, or both.

That was then and this is now, two years on.

Now most of them have heard of Firefox, and many of them have it installed on their computers.

Not only that: Most of them have tried out Google’s own browser, Chrome.

Indeed, nowadays, when I venture a peek over shoulders at cafes and in offices, I see many more Firefoxes (or Chromes) than I used to.

So it doesn’t surprise me to read that, according to research company Net Applications, Internet Explorer’s market share has, for the first time in more than a decade, fallen below 60%.

Of course, 60% still sounds like a good chunk of the market, but remember this: Internet Explorer is the default browser on Windows computers, which still occupy most of the world’s desktops. Last year that figure was nearly 68%. Two years ago, when I started the training course, the figure was 77%. Back in 2003 it was 95%.

Compare this with Firefox, which is now on nearly a quarter of the world’s computers. And while Chrome has only a small share—6.7%—it is growing at quite a clip. A year ago that figure was closer to 2%.

Some of this may be down to a ruling in Europe which has forced Microsoft to offer 12 different browsers. But more likely is that people are getting smarter—more demanding—about what is on their computers.

After all, we spend a lot more time in our browser than we used to. Most of us now use webmail, rather than a separate email application. A lot of us use tools like Google Docs, rather than Microsoft Office. And, of course, there are productivity killers like Facebook, all of which are primarily accessed through the browser.

So what makes these other browsers so appealing?

Well, Internet Explorer is considered notoriously insecure, for one. Lots of bad things are supposed to happen if you use for online banking etc. And users like their browsers fast and light. But perhaps most importantly, Firefox—and increasingly Chrome—offer a range of plug-ins (little bits of software that, well, plug in, to your browser to do extra things for you, from tell you the time in Timbuktu to letting you save clips to online databases, or to Facebook).

This, I think, is part of a broader trend that Microsoft and others haven’t figured out yet.

I see an increasing number of people using Gmail, Google’s webmail service, and I’ve noticed that all these people have customized their interface. This wouldn’t have happened even a year ago. Now they’re exploring beneath the hood of the default settings, and changing their environment to suit their moods and work styles. Some of these changes are small—background colours or themes—but they’re also more productivity-oriented, adding labels and filters to their workflow.

This is great. This is just what they should be doing. But it’s also part of a bigger trend that I believe explains the inexorable shift away from the default.

The simple truth is that as we spend more time in the browser we’re less likely to just go with what’s given to us. We want our browser to be as good as possible and because the changes we make to our online services are movable feasts: If I’ve changed the background on my Gmail to black, shifting to another browser isn’t going to reset it back to boring white.

There’s another factor at play here. Websites used to look very different depending on what browser you used. That’s changed, as developers follow standards more closely (what’s called being “standards compliant”). This gives us users a lot more flexibility—we don’t feel like we’re going to break something on our computer, or not be able to access, say, our banking website—if we’ve left the reservation and installed another browser.

The next step: the browser replaces your operating system. Google is onto it. 

Internet Explorer Euthanasia

Is Microsoft intentionally allowing Internet Explorer to die?

It’s not brand-spanking new as an idea, but that’s the suggestion (I’m guessing the URL; it’s not posted on the website yet) of Dana Blankenhorn, who writes a newsletter called A-Clue.com. In it he writes:

Microsoft is deliberately letting Internet Explorer lose the browser market to Mozilla’s Firefox. Microsoft won’t admit this publicly but it makes sense. The company hasn’t had a major upgrade to the program in years. It was relatively trivial for Mozilla, descended ultimately from Netscape, to match those features, even go slightly beyond them.

Blankenhorn says Microsoft is sick of fixing bugs for software that has no business model. Instead, he says, Microsoft is putting its money into applications like its Media Player. “There are business models that can be built around Media Player. You can sell content through that conduit. Until someone creates a business model around browser dominance Explorer is dead.”

An interesting view. No one is quite sure whether IE is actually dead or dominant. Lance Ulanoff says the former, John Dvorak the latter. In the forums one reader makes an interesting point: You can no longer download a full version of IE anymore from Microsoft’s website. This is presumably because of Microsoft’s decision a year ago not to issue further ‘standalone versions’ of IE after IE SP1.

Although things have changed a bit since then — security is now a priority, for example — I think this is probably where the truth lies. Microsoft may believe that developing a browser for its own sake is a waste of time, so long as you can control the other applications users work in. So if you’re using Microsoft Office, for example, better to keep the user inside one of those programs when they search the Internet by building the Research Pane, a window that has browser like features and functions but keeps the user inside a Microsoft product. If you do that, who needs a browser, or rather, who cares what the user does in a browser?

I’m guessing here, but if I was Microsoft, I wouldn’t care too much about numbers. Who needs to ensure everybody is using IE if all they’re doing is surfing for porn? Better to lock in the high-paying customers who might use online databases, for example, by keeping them in Office, or Outlook, or OneNote, or whatever. This is why I think you’re seeing more and more add-in toolbars for products like Outlook. The less people have to use a browser, the less steps they have to take to get information, and the more control you have over whether they go.

This may be one reason why Google is developing its own browser, if the rumours are true. Google relies on the browser more than any other company and presumably doesn’t want to find its business model made irrelevant for these in-program searches. Google needs eyeballs, and so needs to control the program and context of its users. Blankenhorn may well be right. The browser battle just may not be a battle Microsoft thinks is worth winning, because they see the war has moved elsewhere: to the in-program toolbar or research pane.