• Browser Market Share: A Reality Check

    October 15th, 2005

    You’ve got to be encouraged by the latest figures of browser market share. Considering the Mac’s allegedly tiny corner of the market, statistics from Net Applications putting Safari at 2.39% as of September is quite an achievement. This is especially true when you look at the October 2004 statistic of 1.46%. Does this represent a massive influx of new Mac users over the past year? I won’t go that far, but it appears to be an impressive development.

    The big story, however, at least as far as the mainstream tech press is concerned, is that Firefox’s stellar growth has apparently hit the wall. After peaking at 8.71% in June, the latest stats put the upstart’s percentage of Internet surfers at 7.55%. So what’s going on here? According to a published report, a spokesperson for Net Applications, a company that tallies these numbers, says that part of the share drop is due to Netscape 8.0, which is only available for Windows users.

    The latest Netscape is designed to deliver pages using the Mozilla Geko engine, same as Firefox, or Internet Explorer. Apparently earlier versions of Netscape were erroneously identifying themselves as Firefox, which accounted for the some of the growth of the latter. The latest figures, showing Netscape at 2.15% and a corresponding reduction in Firefox, are supposedly more accurate.

    At the same time, the precipitous slide of Internet Explorer has apparently halted, and it increased from 86.31% in August to 86.87%. Or maybe not. Let me explain. You see, Netscape will render some pages as Internet Explorer, which clearly impacts the latter’s stats. So maybe some of those figures weren’t generated by Internet Explorer after all, but it appears this is one point that isn’t being discussed.

    Another is the down-in-the-dumps rating for Opera, a mere 0.51%. Opera has been stuck in that narrow range, give or take a small number, for the past year. Is this the reason why Opera Software decided to ditch the banner ads for the free version, and change the premium version to a premium technical support deal? Perhaps we’ll see the answer over the next few months.

    But does Opera really have such a small impact on the market? That, my friends, is the big question mark, and again the numbers aren’t being questioned by tech commentators. You see, by default Opera identifies itself as Internet Explorer! That’s the secret, and I doubt that Net Applications or any other statistical survey attempts to parse the real Internet Explorer from the faux version. Opera does this for compatibility reasons, in part because some sites may not render properly or at all for anything but MSIE. But it also means that Microsoft’s browser is erroneously being credited with a higher market share than it really has. Worse, Opera isn’t getting the numbers it deserves. And, yes, you can change the browser to call itself Mozilla or Opera, but most people won’t bother touching that preference.

    Now I suppose this disparity can be addressed by Opera just identifying itself as Opera, although I understand there may be complications with some sites. At best, you can look at Opera’s own download numbers, which may not realistically indicate its impact on the market, since many potential users may simply try it out and go back to another browser. But it ought to show a trend. For example, within two days after dumping its ad banner in late September, some one million copies had been downloaded. As of October 5, Opera claims its daily download rate has quadrupled.

    It sounds like Opera is poised for impressive growth, but how are we to tell, if most of its users aren’t getting counted? I suppose, of course, that Opera can switch that default, so its real user base will be known, at least so long as folks don’t change it and new copies replace the older versions. But will that reduce Opera’s compatibility? Good question, and one that I’m not about to answer, although I have made just that change to see whether page rendering quality or the ability to connect to a site is altered.

    As much as I’d like to see all browsers correctly counted, I’d also like to see if the people at Net Applications and other firms that provide statistics of this sort would try to figure out a better way to deliver fair counts. And maybe a few of the folks who aren’t paying attention to such obvious matters will begin to do their homework.

    And, by the way, I’m mostly pleased with the latest Opera, version 8.5. It does a fair job of delivering pages accurately and speed is superior to previous versions. In trying to have all platforms present a similar look, though, the Mac version has some interface glitches and there are some printing-related issues that I’m watching. I’ll let you know if that change of identity alters its compatibility. It certainly won’t do a lot to alter Opera’s market share rating, since I don’t expect many to make a similar preference change.

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