As soon as I decided to cover browser market share this week, my brain interrupted me. “Dude,” it said, “you just wrote about browser competition. Get over it.”
So I checked, and sure enough, I had written about the four browsers installed on my computer — in 2009. Also known as three years ago, two jobs ago, and before my dog was born. Things tend to change in the tech world in that amount of time. And yes, they have.
The primary change has been the steady rise of Google’s browser, Chrome. Back in May 2009, Chrome had just come out of beta status and accounted for about 2 percent of Web traffic. Its popularity has been growing in a fairly straight line since then; it shared the number 3 spot in the United States for about half of 2010 with Mac’s built-in browser, Safari, then continued its climb past Firefox just in the past few months. With about 22 percent market share, Chrome is now America’s second favorite desktop browser, behind Internet Explorer at 41 percent.
Globally, the story is similar but much more dramatic. Chrome shot past Safari before the end of 2009 and surpassed Firefox last November. It’s second place worldwide, but by a much narrower margin than in the U.S.: it holds about 31 percent market share to Internet Explorer’s 34 percent.
Why should you care what other people are using? Because it affects how well websites work.
Back in the days of Internet Explorer’s clear dominance, Web designers would be sure to test their code on that browser. What’s the point, after all, of making a site if most people can’t view it correctly? If they had time, they might then test on other browsers. Despite the other browsers being “standards based,” they were dwarfed by IE, so if it came down to following open standards or using what worked for Microsoft, well, Microsoft won.
That started to change with the release of Mozilla Firefox in 2004, but testing in non-Microsoft browsers was still mostly an afterthought for years. As its use rapidly increased, though, Microsoft responded to the competition by — get this — making its product better. That meant faster and more standards-compliant. Having two big browsers in the marketplace actually made testing simpler in some ways, since the same code could be expected to work more often. With Chrome now so popular, some websites actually work better in an “alternative” browser.
Now Internet Explorer can only claim a plurality of users rather than a majority, and globally, its lead is razor-thin. That’s why you see Internet Explorer 10 ads on television. Microsoft has lost control of the browser market, and if it wants us to use its online services — and oh, it does — it needs to play nice with other browsers. Rather than assuming people will just keep using the browser that came with their computer, it needs to make sure customers have no reason to leave.
The fight has prompted Google and Mozilla to release new versions every month or two. Personally, I’ve started to become disenchanted with Firefox’s quirks, but haven’t made Chrome my primary browser yet (though I use all three). Change is hard.
By the way, I used the site gs.statcounter.com as my main source for this column. Its graphs are super easy to use and look nice to boot. In addition to browsers, you can compare operating systems, search engines, screen resolutions, and other stats.
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