Towards Browsers War II

cust_pie.gif This image published by StatMarket (a subsidiary of web analytics outfit WebSideStory) is quite telling. Are we seeing a new browser war? Is Microsoft Internet Explorer starting to lose its hegemony on the web? Is Mozilla the new phoenix rising from the ashes of the Netscape browser?

A little irony aside, having crossed the path of Netscape at the time its browser was the hegemonic one, I've been looking at the browsers market shares on a regular basis with a professional interest for quite some time now. Back in 1997, the folks at Netscape had already identified one small but important fact of the IT life: more than 70% of the users would never change the default settings of their PC (OS and applications). There is no mystery why Netscape was keen to sign partnerships with PC manufacturers and get their browser installed by default with its default home page pointing to www.netscape.com. Alas, this very fact of life played mechanically in favor of Microsoft when it came with its own browser, Internet Explorer, non accidentally entrenched within Windows as the default choice (with MSN for home page). If 70% of your users are happy with basically not having to make a choice, better be the one who chose for them, isn't it? This is how Microsoft displaced Netscape in the browsers market shares (and triggered the monopoly trial, but this is another subject). The first browsers war ended with the clear victory of Microsoft and, ultimately, the death of Netscape. In the past two years, people remembered Netscape mostly to enjoy (with reason) the disappearance of its legacy browsers, and AOL put the last nail in the coffin in July 2003 by killing the Netscape browser division it inherited when Netscape was split between them and Sun.

What happened in the past years?

From the external observer looking towards Redmond, it seems that Microsoft is not in a hurry to develop its browsers, when it does not simply kill them like IE for Mac OS. IE for Windows is now quite old and there are no plans to release a new version until the next version of Windows, Longhorn, ships sometimes in 2006. So long for innovation. Updates to IE seem only triggered by more and more aggressive security issues that plague Windows PCs in droves.

Meanwhile, the Mozilla Foundation, born from the defunct Netscape browser division at AOL, continued its efforts to develop a comprehensive suite of internet products around its Gecko rendering engine, notably the Firefox web browser, the Thunderbird email client and the 200-pound Mozilla browser/email/IRC/newsgroup/HTML editing suite. With the ambition to appeal to the masses, they (at last) made a marketing effort and relooked their site and products to make them attractive to the non-geeks out there. Those efforts helped place the Mozilla products as a serious alternative to Microsoft's ones, serious enough that more and more influencers are suggesting to look for alternatives to IE (e.g. Walt Mossberg/WSJ, CNet switchers list, Gartner, or the Spread Firefox campaign).

Although this will be deemed as anecdotal by some, it should be noted that Apple's entrance in the browser market with Safari, and its aggressive push to spread it amongst the Mac OS users, led to the quick fall of the market share of Mac IE (but also, I think, somehow limited the spread of the Mozilla products on Mac OS).

What gives?

It can be easily argued that the balance has shifted in favor of the alternative solutions to IE. I also think that there is a limit to what users can accept when, at the same time, they are confronted with more and more evidence that there are better alternatives than what they are presented with by default, and a loss of confidence in how secure they can rest while surfing the net and reading their emails with Microsoft's products. The last stroke, i.e. the risk of being attacked by just viewing a picture, is quite scary for the layman. I would love to have refreshed statistics about what percentage of users never change the default software preferences, but I would be surprised if it stands at the same level as in 1997. Logically, IE (and possibly Outlook) is at high risk of falling.

Indeed, if we believe the recent reports, the market share of IE is falling in favor of alternative browsers, mainly the Mozilla family(1). Take your pick at: Linux World Australia, Silicon.com, the W3School stats or those of Ars Technica. I'm myself seeing a significant trend building in this direction on my biggest site (more on that later but you can easily infer which one I'm referring to). Note that stats excerpted from specific web sites are to be taken with a grain of salt, since they are never representative of more than those sites audiences. However, aggregated stats such as the ones provided by web analytics ASPs or prominent places are significant in terms of trends. (Unfortunately, the Google Zeitgeist does not show the browsers trends anymore.)

To conclude, it's always been dangerous to build a site to a specific browser, but it's never been more dangerous to believe that IE is the only browser that matters. You probably already know where I'm heading to: when building or redesign a web site, your only safe bet is to adopt web standards and a design that is open to the broadest possible set of clients. And not just browsers, mind you, but also spiders, newsreaders and who knows what people are using to pull your content out.

If Microsoft keeps its stance to not upgrade IE before Longhorn ships, the next two years of the Browsers War II will be very interesting to watch.

(1) i.e. all Gecko-based browsers: Mozilla, Firefox and Netscape.

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