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Is Microsoft Ready to Lose the Browser Wars?

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.