(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.