The internet has witnessed umpteen developments in the evolution of social/professional networking, online gaming & entertainment, and e-commerce, but none matches the sheer scale, speed and impact of those in the browser arena. Whether or not you are an avid online networker, gamer or buyer, if you use the internet, you are inevitably affected by the browser wars. And, no one benefits more from these wars than you, the consumer.
In this post, we explore the various facets of today’s browser wars and look at where it’s headed from here.
The bigwigs with the (unfair) advantage?
What began as a one to one combat between Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer (back in 1995), with IE eventually trumping Navigator for good, has evolved into a full-blown battle for market dominance involving a lot more players. We’re talking Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox (funded by the guys of Netscape fame), Apple Safari, Opera and the oldest survivor of the lot, IE. That’s not all: RockMelt, Maxthon, SeaMonkey, Konqueror, Flock, Prism, Galeon and OmniWeb add to the din, even if as an almost imperceptible background buzz.
Microsoft strikes it big!
The battleground is far from level, however. This can be attributed to browser manufacturers doing a lot more than making stand-alone browsers. Microsoft has its own Windows OS, the MOST popular series of operating systems, hands down (W3schools pegs them at a whopping 84% market share as of May 2012). Usually every machine running a Windows OS comes pre-installed with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. In fact, Microsoft recently sparked quite the controversy when Mozilla and Google cried foul over Windows RT (Windows 8 for ARM devices) offering full functionality for IE 10 alone, leaving users no choice but to settle for IE10, when Win 8 is released later this year.
The Google advantage
Google took off as a breakthrough search-engine company that now has its own, very popular Android OS targeting mobile users, a not-so-popular Chromebook PC and an extensively used Webmail platform in Gmail, among a multitude of other products, developed in-house and acquired. Whereas the Chromebook PC solely operates the Chrome browser, Gmail and other Google services (Picasa, Google Docs, YouTube etc.) are fastest on this browser.
Chrome was also the first browser to introduce a multiple sign-on feature that enables users to login to different Google services such as two or more linked Gmail accounts, Picasa, YouTube, Blogger, Google Plus etc, using a single account you’ve registered with Google. This level of integration entices users to flock to Google’s Chrome browser and that’s not a bad thing at all. Firefox and IE followed suit with multi sign-ons. But, as we often say, once a Chrome user, always a Chrome user!
Bitten by the Apple bug? Go Safari!
Apple Safari is not far behind in competitive advantage: Mac OSX computers offer a superior browsing experience with Safari (the default browser on a Mac), not available on other browsers and Apple’s iOS does not support any browser not using its version of the WebKit layout engine. This may change eventually if and when an iOS-compatible Chrome is released.
Popularity tussle: Firefox emulates Chrome
The rat race for kingship in a crowded browser market has got browser vendors shipping out newer, improved versions on tighter schedules, with Chrome leading the pack. Following a Software Release Cycle of around 6 weeks between launch of successive beta versions, Google has set the industry benchmark and others, notably Mozilla, have been quick to catch up. Earlier, this didn’t quite work in favor of the Firefox browser, mostly because it provides extensive support for third party add-ons or extensions. Newer versions released in quick succession assumed add-on incompatibility by default; as such, any installed extensions would be lost with an upgrade and users would have to wait till compatible versions of their extensions were released. This hurt Firefox’s popularity as its biggest selling factor is customizability via add-ons. Mozilla was quick to address the issue, declaring an extension compatible unless found to be otherwise in a compatibility check.
A major contributing factor to Chrome’s popularity has been its lightning fast performance and relatively low memory/system resource footprint. Firefox and IE, the other major players, commanded greater resources. With Firefox 13, Mozilla claims to have improved on memory management along with start-up times and to some extent, this seems to be true. Besides, crash rates and response time have improved over previous versions. Another plus point!
Chrome syncs to Firefox
Firefox 11 was the first to implement syncing of tabs, bookmarks, history, extensions and passwords across devices, followed by Chrome 19. On the other hand, Chrome’s support for multi sign-on is emulated by Firefox and more recently, Yahoo’s Axis.
Firefox 13 also introduces a tabs-on-demand feature, which puts off loading multiple tabs until you click on them. This feature has evoked mixed response from users, as it presents a tradeoff in productivity over start up time and cannot be used as a long-term strategy to boost performance metrics. Chrome does not implement any such feature, nor does IE. Tab grouping is another Firefox feature that lets you group several tabs together and access one group at a time. So, if you are catching up with tech news blogs the same time you are finding a quick dinner recipe, Firefox helps you cut the clutter, neatly organizing tabs into separate groups, should you choose to. This is even more effective when you need more groups.
IE: Fighting a losing battle?
In the ongoing war between Chrome and Firefox, IE seems to have lost out on popular demand, despite offering significantly better versions in IE 9 and now IE 10 (optimized for touch). Most users are unaware of IE’s superb server-level encryption, over and above the 128-bit encryption that makes it the most secure browser, especially for online banking or e-commerce.
No clear winners
Browser usage is a hotly debated topic, since there are multiple algorithms used by independent entities. Table below summarizes most recent stats from NetApplications, StatCounter, W3Counter and Wikimedia:
All’s well until it isn’t
A treatise on browsers is never complete without talking of how the contenders edge each other out with claims of better online privacy. All major browsers come integrated with pop-up blocking features. You can also clear history, form data, cookies on browsers and set privacy to disable third party cookies used to serve targeted ads by advertising companies.
But that’s the most privacy you could get from browsers, which are themselves notorious for tracking users. However, what makes it worse is when browser vendors take over all your online data, through the offering of integrated services (think Google: webmail – Gmail, blogging – Blogger, networking – G+, photo sharing – Picasa, video sharing/viewing – YouTube) and couple this with your browsing patterns to form your online identity. Some of us might not see any harm in this, but a majority of the online community is definitely upset, so even a spark could create an uproar and hurt user confidence.
Acknowledging user preference for greater privacy, Firefox has been the first browser to offer a Do-Not-Track feature to alert websites when a user doesn’t want to be tracked. Other browsers followed suit, though Google Chrome is yet to do so, probably by end of this year.
The future of web is mobile!
Anticipating future trends and using it to develop a sound strategy is key to business sustainability. Technology analysts have identified an increasing number of internet users is taking to mobile and tablet phones to access the Internet. According to research published June 2012 by Pew Internet, around 55% adult cell owners go online using their phones. If that’s the figure for adults, one can only imagine what it would be like for a much more tech savvy younger generation.
Safari and Android browsers are the leaders in the mobile/tablet phone browser market, each with a 65.8% and 19.2% stake, and Opera at 10.6% is not far behind. This presents a lucrative opportunity for browser vendors to develop phone-compatible versions in a Safari-saturated market, taking browser wars to its third episode.
Although there is no clear winner in the browser wars yet, one thing’s for sure, internet users are spoiled for choice and with each browser aiming to outperform its rivals, feature rich and super-fast performance have become industry bywords, making end user experience even more delightful!