The End of an Era: Internet Explorer Drops Below 50 Percent of Web Usage
A couple of interesting things happened in the world of Web browser usage during October. The more significant one is that Internet Explorer’s share of global browser usage dropped below 50 percent for the first time in more than a decade. Less significant, but also notable, is that Chrome for the first time overtook Firefox here at Ars, making it the technologist’s browser of choice. [Ed. Note: That still hasn't happened at Webmonkey, but it's very close. See below for more stats.]
Internet Explorer still retains a majority of the desktop browser market share, at 52.63 percent, a substantial 1.76 point drop from September. However, desktop browsing makes up only about 94 percent of Web traffic; the rest comes from phones and tablets, both markets in which Internet Explorer is all but unrepresented. As a share of the whole browser market, Internet Explorer has only 49.58 percent of users. Microsoft’s browser first achieved a majority share in—depending on which numbers you look at—1998 or 1999. It reached its peak of about 95 percent share in 2004, and has been declining ever since.
Where has that market share gone? In the early days, it all went Firefox’s way. These days, it’s Chrome that’s the main beneficiary of Internet Explorer’s decline, and October was no exception. Chrome is up 1.42 points to 17.62 percent of the desktop browser share. Firefox is basically unchanged, up 0.03 points to 22.51 percent. Safari grew 0.41 points to 5.43. Opera has been consistently falling over the last few months, and it dropped again in October, down 0.11 points to 1.56 percent.
In spite of Android sales now outstripping iOS sales, iOS users are far more abundant on the Web. Mobile browsing is currently a much smaller market, with 5.5 percent of Web usage conducted on smartphones and tablets. This small market is also a lot more volatile than the desktop market. Mobile Safari was up by 6.58 points last month to 62.17 points. The biggest single loser was the Android browser, dropping 2.91 points to 13.12 percent. Symbian, BlackBerry and Opera Mini also registered falls, down 2.15 points to 2.55 percent, 0.64 points to 2.04 percent, and 0.27 points to 18.65 percent, respectively.
The trend graph says it all: Firefox’s share is flat, with Chrome driving all Internet Explorer’s losses.
Safari’s long-term dominance in mobile is clear. Also clear is that Android’s sales growth isn’t at all reflected in its Web usage.
The upgrade trends show a familiar story. Chrome users, who for the most part receive updates automatically, switch to new versions quickly and efficiently. Chrome’s “tail” is growing ever longer, though, with about 2 percent of desktop browser users—about 14 percent of Chrome users—using old versions. That number is growing every month, and it appears to be resilient.
Firefox retains its clean split between people on the new, rapid release versions (4-9) and those on the old stable version (3.6). The rapid release users are upgrading fairly quickly, though the cut-overs are neither as rapid nor as automated as those of Chrome. However, almost a quarter of Firefox users are sticking with version 3.6. Until and unless Mozilla produces a stable edition with long-term support, this is unlikely to change.
Internet Explorer, however, continues to see major usage of old versions. Internet Explorer 6 and 7, which aren’t current on any supported version of Windows, are still the version used by 25.4 percent of Internet Explorer users, 13.38 percent of desktop users as a total. These are people that can upgrade to either Internet Explorer 8 (if they’re using Windows XP) or Internet Explorer 9 (if they’re using Windows Vista), but who have, for some reason, refused to do so. Internet Explorer 8 users appear to be switching to Internet Explorer 9 at a slow but steady rate, with the former down about a point, and the latter up by about a point.
The browser usage here at Ars Technica continues to be unusual, with Firefox and Chrome over-represented on the desktop, and Android showing a much stronger performance among mobile user than is seen on the wider Web.
A compelling case can be made that the causes for these two phenomena—Internet Explorer’s decline, and Chrome’s growth—are closely related. They represent the influence of the computer geek.
Ars Technica’s unusual usage figures are not surprising when considering its audience: visitors to the site tend to be technologists and early adopters: Ars readers were among the first to switch to using Firefox as their browser of choice, and similarly they’re leading the way with Chrome. While Internet Explorer’s decline, Firefox’s flatlining, and Chrome’s growth have happened faster at Ars than the broader Web, the underlying trends are the same. [Ed. Note: Webmonkey's browser stats are roughly the same as of October 31st. Chrome has yet to overtake Firefox among Webmonkey's perhaps more developer-heavy audience, but it's gaining on Firefox every month. For the month of October 33.4 percent of you were using Firefox, 32.4 percent Chrome and only 16.0 percent Internet Explorer.]
This is perhaps not surprising. Ars has more than its fair share of IT decision-makers, both in corporate environments and home environments (I’m sure that many of us know the perils of being the “computer guy” roped in to fix the problems plaguing friends’ and family’s machine). It might be a few months before a Chrome-using Ars-reading geek starts to recommend it to friends and family, or a few years before he gets approval to roll the browser out across the company whose computers he maintains, but the migration will happen. Technology decisions are usually made by technology people—and technology people read Ars, ditched Internet Explorer for Firefox a few years ago, and are now switching to Chrome.
Firefox appealed to the geek demographic by offering tabs, a wealth of extensions, and active development: geeks enjoy new things to play with, and a browser that’s frozen in time, as Internet Explorer 6 was, holds no appeal. Chrome in turn offered a focus on performance and stability, even more active development, and the cachet of being built by Google. Chrome was also quick to offer obvious but useful things such as built-in, robust session restoration, and a useful new tab page (something Internet Explorer 9 replicated, and which is currently in beta for Firefox). Bundling Flash also removed a potential headache, by ensuring that a potentially buggy plugin was kept current and up-to-date. On top of all this, Google has been vocal in pushing its view of how the Web should work, with the VP8 video codec, the SPDY Web protocol, and most recently, the Dart scripting language.
A browser that doesn’t appeal to this demographic won’t receive the benefit of this kind of on-the-ground advocacy. Mozilla is working to bring some of Chrome’s appealing features to Firefox, with its new development schedule and future features such as tab isolation, and though this is currently causing some headaches—there are continued issues with extension compatibility—Firefox’s market share is for the most part holding steady. Once Mozilla can get rid of the annoying wrinkles and make updates as pain-free as Chrome’s, it might start to win back the attention of the techie demographic. Especially if Mozilla can come up with a viable IT-friendly long-term support option.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is strenuously avoiding this same demographic. Internet Explorer lacks small but significant creature comforts such as resizeable text boxes, built-in spell checking, and session restoration, and while it does offer certain extensibility points, they fall a long way short of those offered by Firefox, and as such, its extension ecosystem is a whole lot less rich. It’s not enough for Internet Explorer to be a solid mainstream browser: the less technically engaged users who switched to Firefox because a trusted authority told them to aren’t going to spontaneously switch back to Internet Explorer, even if it is good enough for their needs. They’re going to wait until their techie friend next fixes their PC and tells them that they should consider switching to Internet Explorer because it’s “better”. Just as they did for Firefox and do for Chrome.
Internet Explorer is still an important browser, with a userbase large enough that few developers can afford to ignore—though sites that don’t need global appeal may well be able to safely ignore Internet Explorer 6—and at current rates it will remain important for a few years yet. But until and unless Microsoft makes its browser appeal to the influential geek demographic, it looks as if Internet Explorer has nowhere to go but down.
This article originally appeared on Ars Technica, Wired’s sister site for in-depth technology news.