yARN: Are the browser wars back?

yARN: Are the browser wars back?

It's not just a two-horse race - and Internet Explorer's lead has been whittled away

Ah yes, the browsers wars - do you remember the early days of the commercial web when it seemed just about everybody was using Netscape Navigator? And then Microsoft pushed back with Internet Explorer to eventually take what seemed an unassailable market share, a perspective that overlooked the fact that Internet Explorer had come from being the new kid on the block.

But for some time organisations that measure browser usage have been reporting that other browsers, particularly Google’s Chrome, are steadily chipping away Internet Explorer’s lead. And now Ireland-based StatCounter says that in May 2012 worldwide monthly Chrome usage exceeded that of Internet Explorer for the first time .

Usage figures were 32.43 per cent for Chrome, 32.12 per cent for Internet Explorer, and 25.55 per cent for Firefox. Safari managed a distant 7.09 per cent, despite Apple’s strong showing in the mobile market in many countries. So it’s not surprising that StatCounter CEO Aodhan Cullen said “The browser wars are back with a vengeance,” especially as the company also reports Internet Explorer 9 is performing well.

But one of the other major Web analytics players paints a very different picture.

According to preliminary figures for May 2012 from Net Applications’ Net Market Share service, Internet Explorer is still out in front by a mile. It is still trending downwards, but its 49.87 per cent share is still more than that of Chrome (18.05 per cent) and Firefox (18.16 per cent) combined. Yes, Net Market Share and StatCounter disagree about the rankings of the three top browsers, not just their precise shares. Given that both companies purport to log traffic a large number of sites, how can we reconcile those significant differences?

It is important to understand that we aren’t talking about surveys, which if properly constructed and conducted can give good estimates of the true state of affairs. Both companies offer analytics services to site operators who want third-party validation of visitor numbers, plus information about where they came from, what they looked at on the site, and so on. The data collected for that purpose is also crunched to extract global information such as the share of this traffic that comes from different browsers.

Net Market Share’s figures come from over 40,000 sites, whereas StatCounter analyses 3 million sites. Generally speaking, the more sites, the better - but only if they are evenly distributed. Any over-representation (eg, by country or content topic) could give misleading results, as the statistics show that browsers have varying popularities in different countries. For example, StatCounter’s figures show Internet Explorer is still well ahead in the United States and Oceania, but has slipped behind Firefox and Chrome in Europe. In Africa, Firefox is the clear leader, whereas Chrome has a 49.29 per cent share in South America.

It also seems reasonable to suggest a visitor to an IT-related site is more likely to have selected a browser rather than simply using whichever one was preinstalled.

Whichever company’s stats you believe, one thing is clear: if you’re still labouring under the illusion that a website only needs to work properly on the leading browser or even the top two, forget it - it’s at least a three-horse race.

And if you’re targeting an Australian audience, Internet Explorer might still be the favourite (34.9 per cent on StatCounter’s figures), but Safari’s relatively strong showing at 15.72 per cent (more than double its global share) means it should be taken into account alongside Chrome (25.06 per cent) and Firefox (22.55 per cent). And when it comes to mobile browsing, iOS (Safari) takes a whopping 64.7 per cent share, ahead of Android’s 22.39 per cent.

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