Browser wars: IE vs. Firefox vs. Chrome vs. Safari vs. Opera

Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome are battling for the No. 2 position; could No. 1 player Microsoft eventually be unseated?

All eyes are on Google's Chrome browser as it battles Mozilla's Firefox in a tight fight for the No. 2 position behind Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which is holding onto its market-leading share of the desktop browser market.

"In September 2009, Chrome was at 2.35% for worldwide usage. As of September 2011, it's now at 23.61%. There's been a massive increase for Chrome," says Aodhan Cullen, CEO of StatCounter, a web analytics firm in Ireland.

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StatCounter's monthly statistics for September show IE in the lead with 41.66% of the market, followed by Firefox with 26.79%, Chrome with 23.61%, Safari with 5.6% and Opera with 1.72%.

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Most of the monthly fluctuations in market share revolve around Chrome, which has hit a number of milestones lately. It exceeded 20% of the global Internet browser market in June for the first time, according to StatCounter. On a country basis, it surpassed Firefox and became the No. 2 browser in Ireland in May and in the UK in July. And for one day in October -- Sunday, Oct. 16 -- Chrome overtook Firefox on a global basis by a fraction of a percentage point, snaring 26.22% of the global market to Firefox's 26.16%.

"For one day, on that Sunday, Chrome became the No.2 browser," Cullen says.

Chrome's steady increase since its introduction in 2008 has come at the expense of IE, primarily, and Firefox to a lesser degree. If its trajectory continues, Chrome will surpass Firefox on a global basis in the coming months, industry watchers predict.

"Chrome is gaining on Firefox in usage market share. It's coming on strong. It could certainly overtake Firefox -- it seems to be on that path -- but, that being said, things tend to change rather quickly in this market so you just never know," says Vince Vizzaccaro, executive vice president of marketing and strategic alliances for NetApplications.com.

Chrome's ascent and Firefox's staying power beg the bigger question: Is it possible for either one of them to unseat IE as the leader in browsing usage?

"I personally don't think it is," Vizzaccaro says.

Chrome's success has come from its speed, rapid development cycles and ability to constantly release new features, using beta versions to get people to help work out the kinks.

"Chrome is growing without the benefit of a homegrown hardware system. They're doing it with a rapid development cycle. That's great for personal usage. But corporations have a very slow process for testing, deployment and implementation of a new browser," Vizzaccaro says. "I think IE is entrenched as No. 1 for the foreseeable future."

Indeed, stats from Forrester Research paint a slightly different picture of browser trends, since Forrester's view is centered on corporate usage. The research firm analyzes the browsers of PCs that visit its web site. By its count, IE dominates the corporate browser landscape with 58.7% market share, which is considerably higher than the 41.66% StatCounter credits to IE. In Forrester's rankings, IE is followed by Firefox with 17.8%, Chrome with 14.1%, and Safari with 8.8%.

Likewise, Net Applications credits IE with a larger share of the market and shows a bigger gap between Firefox and Chrome: In its numbers for September, Net Applications reported IE with 54.4% of desktop browser usage, Firefox with a 22.5%, and Chrome with 16.2%.

"Chrome has experienced a slow but steady growth in the corporate browser market, thanks largely to tech-savvy, empowered workers clamoring for more control over the applications they run on their work computers," notes Forrester in its report on corporate desktop browser trends. The firm expects Chrome use to continue its steady increase in the enterprise.

As for Firefox, the open-source browser's comprehensive extension ecosystem is one reason for its No. 2 hold on corporate desktops. (See: 10 must-have Firefox extensions

"Firefox now holds nearly 17.8% of the browser market share. Why? Because it's firmly entrenched within many organizations thanks to the proliferation of add-ons that simplify and automate everyday tasks," Forrester summed up.

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Mozilla has handled extensibility very well, agrees Vizzaccaro, who adds that Mozilla is often first to the market with new features and usability improvements. That emphasis on user-friendliness has won a lot of users, he says.

Another aspect that appeals to Firefox advocates is Mozilla's underdog status and the fact that it's not an enormous company with the resources of Microsoft, Google or Apple. "There's a certain appeal to them being this rogue company out there. They're open, nonprofit. It does appeal to a good portion of people," Vizzaccaro says.

In the big picture, the beneficiaries of the competition among IE, Firefox and Chrome are the end users. The leading browser makers have been racing to deliver speedier performance, tighter security and usability improvements.

Microsoft used to command more than 90% of the browser market. Then Mozilla in 2004 debuted Firefox, which started grabbing mindshare and put pressure on Microsoft to innovate.

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"Microsoft is still a leader, but they've got some serious competition now and they've devoted a lot of resources to making sure IE stays in that leadership role. You can see it in the product," Vizzaccaro says.

Browser makers have focused on performance improvements, for instance, boosting page rendering and script-execution speeds and tapping hardware acceleration (a Microsoft tactic). 

Security enhancements have been aimed at blocking malware and phishing attempts, while "do not track" privacy features let users opt out of online tracking by Web sites and advertisers. (Apple, Microsoft and Mozilla have embraced no-tracking, but Google remains a holdout.)

On the mobile front, meanwhile, there's a different cast of characters vying for market share.

Apple's Safari dominates mobile browsing with 55.6% of the market, according to NetApplications. Opera Mini is in second place with 18.9%, followed by Android with 16% (even though Android sales outpace iPhone sales), Symbian with 4.7%, and BlackBerry with 2.7%.

Overall, the mobile/tablet browser share represents a small portion of the overall browser market, with just 6% of Web users using mobile browsers, according to Net Applications.

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