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Who Won the Browser Wars?

November 2, 2016| by Dan Moriarty
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We’re many years removed from the browser wars of yesteryear. While Internet Explorer (IE) handily won the first battle, and survived the upstarts of Firefox and Safari, it’s clearly lost the war to Google’s Chrome browser.

In just the past year, from 2015 to 2016, market share of Chrome has steadily increased while Explorer continues to decline. Current statistics have Chrome at over 50% market share and rising, with the former leader down in the low 20s. Even Firefox appears to be overtaking IE.

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As recently as 2000, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer so thoroughly dominated the market that a monopoly was feared.

Regulators tried to break up Microsoft, and settled for changes in how the company bundled its software. But that didn’t affect its popularity. Ultimately, it was good competition that started the decline.

Firefox and Safari appeared in the early 2000s to offer at least a choice of browsers, and they grabbed a small but dedicated following. But it was really the debut of Google Chrome (2008) that changed the equation.

As browsers go, it was fast, stable and modern right from the beginning. The interface was clean and uncluttered. Updates came fast and furious. And you could search Google right from the URL bar. By the time the other browsers started to catch up, it was too late.

Mac vs PC: Who Cares?

One of the earlier factors in browser wars was the Mac vs PC (Windows) debate. All Windows users were using IE, while Mac users were left with either Safari or Firefox (circa 2004). Safari was Installed by default on all Macs after 2003, and Firefox rose from the ashes of Netscape. Yes there has always been Opera and a few other bit players, but nothing that ever gained much market share.

Now that Macs have recaptured a larger share of the market, you might expect Safari market share to increase, but it hasn’t happened. Safari as the default browser means it still enjoys a majority share of users on Macs. But that’s still only a slice of the overall market. Safari for Windows was discontinued in 2012 after a brief run.

Microsoft has been rapidly releasing new versions of its operating system in recent years, and that has affected users of Internet Explorer. The latest, Windows 10, only supports IE 11. Users on older Windows systems were left with older, unsupported versions of IE. But rather than upgrading the OS, many have instead started relying on other browsers instead (such as Chrome), further depressing IE’s market share.

Desktop vs Mobile

What about mobile? Considering that mobile users now account for over 50% of all traffic, the browser being used on your smartphone really matters. And on mobile, Google again is dominant.

Between its older Android browser and Chrome, Google captures over 60% of users. Thanks to the popular of the iPhone, Safari has a much larger userbase on mobile, tracking at over 25%. The remaining percentages are split between Opera (6%) and others (none more than 2%).

While we’ve been diligently testing on the mobile versions of Chrome and Safari, it’s clear we still need to pay some attention to Opera, though this percentage is unlikely to be increasing.

What This Means For Web Design

Modern, standards-compliant browsers have won the war, an outcome that seemed very much in doubt at one point. This is been great for site builders and developers who would like to continue pushing new features to the web. And as a web team, we love knowing our sites look and work the same across all browsers.

Which Browsers to Support?

3% or higher

Everyone’s rule of thumb could differ, but here at Electric Citizen, our goal has been to support any browser version that maintains a 3% or higher market share. This currently means continued support for websites running on Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Explorer. But at what versions?

For Firefox, Safari and Chrome, it’s generally assumed to be the latest versions of these browsers. They all promote frequent updates and encourage their users to update often. Historically, the same could not be assumed for Internet Explorer.

Explorer, for example, may maintain a 20-25% market share, but this is for all versions of Explorer. And they are definitely not all the same! While Explorer 11 is the most standards-compliant version of Explorer released, earlier versions of Explorer are notorious for various bugs and ‘features’ that caused problems with modern websites - either by not supporting new technology, or including bugs that needed workarounds.

Slicing the market share of Explorer a bit more (approximately), we find that IE 11 currenlty accounts for 12% of the market, IE10 is only 1%, IE 9 at 6%, and IE 8 and below are less than 3%. Knowing that, we will no longer test or support these older versions of Explorer on new projects (*unless an exception is requested by a client for a particular audience).

Edge

Microsoft’s newest browser, Edge, has less than a 2% market share and doesn't appear to be rising in numbers quickly. Contrary to our 3% rule, we’ll support Edge when we can, with the expectation that its user base will eventually grow, and the understanding that it's a more-stable, standards-compliant browser compared to the Explorers of old.

The Future of Browsers

We will continue to test and support websites on all desktop and mobile browsers with 3+% market share, and look forward to seeing how these numbers continue to evolve over time. Some questions to consider:

  • Will Google Chrome eventually monopolize the browser market? Will action be needed at some point to break up a monopoly?
  • Will open-source powered projects like Firefox and the Mozilla Foundation continue to prosper, or fade into history?
  • Will Apple eventually abandon their Safari browser as a lost cause?

What do you think? Add your comments below.

Additional Resources

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photo of Dan Moriarty wearing a dark blue dress shirt

About the Author:

Dan has been serving the Minneapolis-St. Paul area as a UX designer, developer and online strategist since 2000. Dan manages our design process, site mapping, information architecture, template design, and front-end development. He has a background in graphic design and copywriting. More about Dan »