Is Microsoft Ready to Lose the Browser Wars?

March 5th, 2009

All right, the European Union wants Microsoft to give customers a choice of browsers. Rather than just bundle Internet Explorer, they ought to be able to select from among popular contenders, such as Firefox, Safari and even Opera.

This seems a logical idea at first glance, especially if you turn back the clock a decade or so, when Microsoft’s Internet Explorer had over 90% of the browser market without any viable contenders in sight. In those days, there was even a Mac version, one that Apple accepted, along with the promise to continue to develop Office for the Mac, in exchange for making Internet Explorer the Mac OS’s default browser too.

How things have changed. Some years later, Safari arrived on Mac OS X and Internet Explorer left the platform. Under Windows, Internet Explorer’s “unstoppable” market dominance has steadily eroded in the wake of the introduction of Firefox.

When Firefox first arrived, I’m sure few believed that an application you had to make an effort to download would gain much presence compared to a product that was shipped preloaded with the operating system.

Of course, in those days, the tech media really believed Microsoft to be unbeatable, before its stock price dipped to roughly fifteen dollars and change a share. Then again, predictions are a dime a dozen, and you shouldn’t believe mine either. But I won’t stop making them.

The latest reports of browser share, based on ratings from Net Applications, indicate that Firefox has moved ahead of Internet Explorer 6 and is slowly closing in on Internet Explorer 7. Of course, Microsoft is busy with Internet Explorer 8 now. That’s the one that will, at long last, provide genuine support for browser standards rather than Microsoft standards. Or at least that’s what they claim. The betas are supposedly all right in that respect, but I wonder how long it’ll take before Internet Explorer — all versions combined — falls behind Firefox.

All right, let’s be realistic. Internet Explorer still holds roughly two thirds of the market. However, the numbers continue to dip steadily, all without any encouragement from the European Union. Indeed, if they were to prevail, Microsoft would likely suffer even further. Perhaps it serves them right for resting on their laurels with an inferior product for far too long.

Safari? Well, the 4.0 beta lifted Apple’s share of the browser market to over 10%, even though it was slightly lower otherwise.

Now I suppose some of the Windows fanboys (and girls) might want to dispute the numbers from Net Applications, and certainly it would be nice to have some third parties vet their methodology so we can have a better picture of just how well they truly reflect the real world.

I know that one of our other sites, The Paracast Community Forums, reaches people around the world using the Mac OS, Windows and even Linux. The numbers this month list all versions of Internet Explorer as taking 37.9% of the total among our visitors. Firefox is ahead of the game with 43.2%. Safari holds the third position at 14.3%, with Opera and other browsers picking up the balance.

Our numbers aren’t out of the ballpark either. Other sites are delivering figures that are also weighed heavily in Firefox’s favor, and I suspect Internet Explorer gets the lion’s share of its usage from people who pretty much stick with the stuff that came on their PC and never venture beyond those constraints except, perhaps, for Microsoft Office or perhaps some other business-oriented applications.

On the long haul, I think the falling stock price clearly indicates that the financial community has come to realize that Microsoft is in deep trouble. Their claims that it’s not them but the PC market don’t seem credible in light of recent surveys that seem to indicate Apple’s sales, while flat or slightly off, are holding on quite well. You’ll also notice that, in the wake of this week’s introduction of new Mac desktops, including the long-neglected Mac mini, Apple’s stock price has edged slightly higher, against the trend.

Notice, also, that Intel, which is facing a substantial slowdown because of reduced PC sales, once again honored Apple with the first crack at its latest line of Xeon processors for use in the newest Mac Pro. That’s the third time in a row that’s happened. Clearly Intel knows where its best chance for ongoing success lies. The infamous WinTel hegemony is clearly history, and AMD is not even in the race.

While I don’t see it happening this year, I expect to see Firefox achieve the number one spot in the browser wars in a couple of years at most, at which time Internet Explorer will be in a veritable free fall. Once the economy straightens out, don’t be surprised to see even faster increases in Mac sales. Right now Apple, who dominates the higher end of the PC marketplace, is probably meeting some sales resistance. Maybe that’s why they finally got around to upgrading the Mac mini. Maybe it’ll even get some promotion this time.

Of course, I reserve the right to be wrong. But I think my predictions about Microsoft’s inevitable fall from grace remain on target.

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8 Responses to “Is Microsoft Ready to Lose the Browser Wars?”

  1. AdamC says:

    I believe most PC users are ignorant of other browsers so they stick with the ones that come with the OS that is IE. If you ask them to try others they will for a while but jump back to IE once the back is turned. The more savvy ones are trying out others but alas the majority being just users tend to stay with IE. Thus it is hard to break the habit.

    As for Safari it has a lot of bad press and still do (check the trash at CIO) and most people are not happy in spite of the great features it comes with and pick on the slightest thing. For me I am easy I like Safari and I am biased and in my eyes Safari 4.0 (webkit) beta rocks.

  2. rwahrens says:

    I believe your predictions are right on track. I think that between three and five years from now, we will see Microsoft spin off parts of itself in attempts to stave off the inevitable. Eventually, it will split up into at least two entities: the Desktop Division and the Enterprise Division. By then, all others will have been either killed internally or been spun off into separate deaths.

    That will herald a REAL OS war, as Windows loses its glitter as the monopolist’s monopoly, and other companies decide to enter the fray using proprietary versions of unix like apple has done. Some may even begin testing the waters in Apple’s pool, partnering with box manufacturers to sell OS/machine ecosystems as finished products. The market segments of Business and Consumer will finally be separated, as they should have been from the beginning.

    A golden age of OS development could well ensue. Hold on to yer hats then folks, cause the sky will be the limit!

  3. Alfiejr says:

    interesting post. if IE 8 is noticeably slower than Firefox and Safari when it comes out in a few months – as it is right now – then MS is in real trouble holding on to its majority share of the browser market. while Safari pulls Mac users of course and techies prefer Firebox, IE has held on to its base of average PC users who just use whatever without thinking about it. but the one thing everyone really values in a browser is speed in loading those pages. and it may be that IE has permanently fallen behind the webkit based browsers in speed. if so – and we will see soon – then it will be an outdated product and sink like a stone within a year … just like happened once upon a time to an outfit called Netscape.

  4. Pietro says:

    Whether MS makes Windows 7 with the IE 8 turned off/on option, it still maintains the upper hand, by requiring IE for their Update site. If you want to keep your computer secure, you have to keep updating the security fixes, thus you must keep IE.

  5. Maybe they should rename their browser Freefall.

  6. tom b says:

    I skipped Firefox 2 because that sucked on my wife’s MacBook (10.4.10). But, I had a need for better Ajax support aand tried FF 3.0.6 recently, and it’s astounding. Super fast; useful new bookmark and tab features; enhanced stability. I’m VERY impressed.

    The IE team signed its own death warrant when they decided the Mac wasn’t important to them. It meant that web designers could no longer start their design process on IE because that browser excludes not only Mac, but LINUX.

  7. DaveD says:

    The mass growth of spywares and malwares came when Windows and its ecosystem was moved into the World Wide Web. I was using a Windows PC for the week and sat there wondering why anyone would tolerate so much add-on crap such as antivirus, Internet protection, etc. Glad to be back on my Mac.

    I’m using Safari, FireFox, Camino, Opera and have added the now-free OmniWeb on to my few months old Macintel. I’ve been a long-time user of OmniWeb on my PowerBook and it does the best “Print as PDF” of all the browsers. Safari comes in at second place, but the Mozilla group can sometimes do the PDF print acceptable most of the time.

    What’s this about Internet Explorer again?

  8. auramac says:

    I’ve been habituated to using Firefox for some time now, despite having just about every other Mac browser installed. This seems to have changed since I downloaded Safari 4 (and then Safari Buddy). Can’t beat that speed!

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