Mar 7, 2007

Turning point for Browsers

Browser Statistics Graph

Both Microsoft Internet Explorer 7 (IE7) and Firefox 2.0 became available around October 2006. Since then their rise has been fast and steady. At this point, it looks like they are not taking over each other's market share, rather they are replacing their previous versions - Internet Explorer 6 and Firefox 1.5. Internet Explorer 7 may reach a plateau at around 80% at the most, then we'll see if starts going down as Firefox goes up.

These new versions are built to address the evolving changes in the internet. Whereas Firefox has been continuously changing with frequent updates, MS Internet Explorer development had been stalled for the past 6 years. I was able to attend a Webstock conference in May last year, where Tony Chor, the Program Manager of the Internet Explorer 7 team explained the circumstances. After the launch of Windows XP operating system, most of the Internet explorer team had disbanded and there was lack of expertise to pick up the threads again. The start of the Internet Explorer 7 project mostly consisting of bringing these people together again. Tony promised that they plan to issue updates more frequently in the future. Ben Goodger, Google employee and lead designer of Firefox, at the same conference, was focused more on the future, all the way up to Firefox 3 and its possible features.

Ben Goodger and Tony Chor
Ben Goodger and Tony Chor

At Tony's session, one of the participants asked him, "If there was an arm-wrestling match between you and Ben, who would win?". After the laughter had died down, Tony good-naturedly replied, "probably Ben". In the conclusion of the conference, Kathy Sierra remarked that somehow Tony didn't look very sincere when he said it.

Both Firefox and Internet Explorer have implemented a plug-in architecture, where users can find other small programs that can be fitted into the browser to perform 'cool' features. In Firefox, many of these plug-ins go on to become part of the standard installation in the next version. Independent developer enthusiasts contribute these plug-ins. This architecture has already been around in Firefox for some time, and the browser has a large community contributing lots of plug-ins. Internet Explorer has just started on this path, and it's community is minuscule. Microsoft is actively encouraging corporate partners and its developer community to become contributors.

As for Safari, nobody except Apple technology enthusiasts use this, and that's restricted to 5% of the computers market for now.

If mobile phones become a significant platform for access to the internet, then the whole scenario might change. For example, if Apple's iPhone becomes as popular as the iPod, there will be far more people using the phone to access the internet than computers, and the mobile phone browsers will dominate and determine web interface design. A likely scenario is that all models of mobile phones are going to evolve to provide internet access. Whether that access is practical or satisfactory remains to be seen.

The future of browsers is important to us techies as browsers are increasingly the basis of delivering software services, and we have to design the web pages to work on as many browsers as possible. For believe it or not, not all the browsers follow the standards correctly or in the same manner - the same web page will behave differently on different browsers. In taking care of all possibilities, resource and time constraints force us to choose which browser to build for and which browser to ignore.

Looks like it's Internet Explorer 6, Internet Explorer 7, and Firefox 2.0 for now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are missing Opera in this picture. It doesn't have a large market share on the desktop yet, but it is a major player on mobile phones and other connected devices. Opera Mobile is included on many high-end smartphones, and millions of people are using Opera Mini on 'feature phones', the biggest part of the mobile phone market.

You also seem to mix up some numbers: Apples has a large market share among standalone MP3 players, but the number of sold iPods is still way way below the number of mobile phones sold each year. It is no wonder they want to get into that market as well. If Apple 'only' sells as many iPhones as they seel iPods, they are not a really big player in that market.