Browser Wars 2010

There are lots of great technologies moving us into the next generation of web design, but some existing technologies are holding us back. The latest statistics from Global Stats StatCounter can help us understand where we are and where to go.

State of the Industry

We need to adopt new browsers for web development in order to continue growing. This industry changes rapidly — one day a technology is amazing, the next it’s obsolete. With Microsoft Vista’s unpopular release in 2007, many home users and businesses resisted updating their systems and have been stuck on Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6. Quickly approaching its 10th birthday, IE6 still hangs on to nearly 16% of the market share. IE7 (20.25%), released in 2006, was finally surpassed by IE8 (21.4%) and is growing slowly since it was released in May of 2009.

Mozilla’s Firefox, now in version 3.5, has been chewing at Microsoft’s lead over the past few years. Through word of mouth and making its way into IT departments’ hearts by being faster, more compatible and offering a slew of extensions developed by thousands of developers. After many years of rising, Mozilla’s market share has been leveling off and possibly declining. This may be because the browser market is saturated with so many new browsers and the inability to shake the old ones. Worldwide, Firefox 3.5 still has the highest user percentage (22.4%) of any single browser version, followed closely by Internet Explorer 8.

Google has made inroads into the browser market with its shiny new Chrome Browser (5.25% market share), which means it has surpassed Apple’s Safari’s market share (3.7%). Google’s Chrome is also hopping on the app and extension bandwagon by allowing developers to create custom plug-ins for its browser. This will give Firefox users another extensible browsing option.

Safari, Apple’s browser, had been doing fairly well until Chrome came along. Both Safari and Chrome are built on the rendering engine called WebKit. This is a huge advantage for everyone looking toward the future of web development. WebKit takes advantage of many HTML5 tags and CSS3 attributes. With more browsers supporting its abilities, the more web developers can make use of the latest and greatest. There were even rumors that the next version of Internet Explorer would be built on the WebKit framework. Those have since been squashed (maybe).

Opera had always been a nice 3rd-string browser until last year, when Safari and Chrome pushed it further down the ranks (2%). Opera definitely delivers the goods when it comes to innovating within the browser. Opera’s Unite could become the next big browser feature, but whether or not anyone notices they did it first, is another story.

The Upgrade Model

So why have some browsers been more effective at upgrading versions? In the past 2 years we’ve seen faster releases of new versions of many popular browsers. Firefox has the best release system by far. Microsoft is perhaps one of the slowest. Opera may have the most innovative releases. Google enjoys keeping applications in beta. Apple takes leaps into the latest technologies.

Firefox will (sometimes annoyingly) remind users that a new version exists upon startup of the application. When you click accept there is a download process, an upgrade, then the application restarts; simple, fast, and intuitive. They were able to transition a majority of their users from version 2 to version 3 in a matter of 4 months, and later moved nearly all their users over to v3.5 shortly thereafter.  People using Firefox tend to be more in the know about their computers and realize they want the latest and the greatest. These users are much more willing to make the upgrade on their own. Many in this same crowd are willing to give Chrome a test drive.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Why has their upgrade model been so slow?  This has to do with the browser being so tightly integrated into their operating systems. XP had IE6, Vista had IE7 and Windows7 has IE8. Many people are still under the impression that in order to upgrade their browser they have to put down a large sum of money to upgrade their system as well. Microsoft’s upgrade scheme isn’t friendly. Here we are with 10 years of IE6 and no easy way to get users to upgrade. Microsoft still holds about 65% (down from 95% in 2002) of the browser market share, and they know they still have enough clout to implement at their own pace. At least they seem to be betting on it.

Another part of the problem is that the average web user either: A) doesn’t know, B) doesn’t care, or C) doesn’t have the option of switching to a modern browser. Surely we can use education to solve at least 2 of those issues.

Browser Predictions for 2010

  1. Google Chrome will become more prominent, taking a fair share of Firefox’s market, because it’s faster. Most people know and trust Google, which gives Google an advantage. Chrome is the sleek, shiny new toy in the toy-box.
  2. Firefox has been getting bloated over the years and may need to slim down and speed up. Mozilla seems to be recognizing this with the v3.6 beta.
  3. IE 8’s market will grow as it takes the IE6 and 7 crowd into the next decade. With Windows7 being more popular than Vista, the businesses will begin upgrading their networks and IE8 will be the default install.
  4. IE6’s share will drop more rapidly thanks to world governments (Germany and France) realizing that using it is a security risk.
  5. Social media will become more integrated into the browser; Opera Unite and Google Wave will take advantage of these technical advances.
  6. Browsers using HTML5 and CSS3 will take off this year, with or without Microsoft on board. Apple and Google already have been taking advantage of WebKit’s use of these technologies, Mozilla and Opera are following close behind.

The best thing for Archer to do as a leader in the web development field is to educate clients (and perhaps users) about the advantages and pitfalls of each browser. We need to help clients find their browser demographics and use the appropriate technologies. As a web developer, a simple rule of thumb is to test browser compatibility on the latest two versions of browsers. In the meantime, we will continue to use Javascript libraries such as jQuery and Prototype to supplement other browsers due to their lack of advances.

(Microsoft, we’re looking at you).

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