The unthinkable has happened. After years of dominating the browser space, Microsoft’s near monopoly could well be over with Dublin-based StatCounter which measures web usage, stating that Google’s Chrome is now the most popular Web browser worldwide. After years of slowly chipping away at Internet Explorer’s market share, Chrome now leads with 32.76% share, just ahead of IE’s 31.94% share. Just a year ago, IE was still the Web browser of choice with a market share of 43%, followed by Mozilla Firefox with 29%, and Chrome third with 19%. The numbers are of course disputed by Microsoft and with some justification. Statcounter rival Net Applications has IE with 54% of browser usage, to Chrome’s 19%
What is indisputable though is that IE - which was first introduced in 1995, a full decade before Chrome was launched - has registered a significant decline in the market share from the dizzying heights of 95% when it unseated Netscape, the pioneer in the space. While the stats vary depending on the counting methodology, the long-term trend is inescapable – IE is on the decline and much as Microsoft itself leveraged the Windows advantage to shake Netscape off, Google is using its overwhelming presence on the web to muscle the industry leader off the browser space with Chrome, a light weight and application-centric browser.
Indeed, the real payoff from the users’ point of view was that it forced Microsoft to adopt newer technologies, thereby pushing development of the web further. Microsoft’s big problem was that too many people use older versions of IE which doesn’t update automatically (and many users are wary of going through the process of uninstalling one version and downloading another). This meant that many apps that would work fine in IE9 wouldn’t work quite as effectively in say IE7. In contrast, Chrome updates automatically and seamlessly, some would say almost surreptitiously. Older users of Chrome could well find they are using the 18th or 19th version of it without knowing about it. This has given the browser the edge among app-hungry users since the newer apps work better in Chrome than in other browsers. Fundamentally, with Chrome, Google pushed the envelope on browsers much further to set it up more as a cloud client.
As a friend who understands technology better than most people I know explained, take two key technologies that are there in Chrome and Firefox but not there in IE: SPDY, which improves performance and WebSocket, which enables continuous communication between the browser and the server instead of the load-page-and-wait behaviour.
IE doesn’t have SPDY but it does have WebSocket in IE10 (which is still in preview). New desktop-style web applications like Trello (a collaboration tool that organizes projects into boards such that at a glance one can see what’s being worked on, who’s working on what, and where something is in a process) use WebSockets but have to fall back on cumbersome workarounds for IE.
Paradoxically, Microsoft is more entrenched on the desktop today than it was say five years ago. That may be as much because of its own efforts in reclaiming a space it seemed to have taken its eyes off at one point as it is to the fact that Linux on the desktop isn’t quite as important today as it looked a few years ago. But in the internet space it has floundered. And that’s where the future is. Playing catch up isn’t a game that Microsoft is used to playing. How well it does that now could well determine its own future.