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Browser War Gets Uglier As Firefox Is Set To Grab 20% Share

 

Chicago (IL) - The most recent browser market share numbers released by Net Applications confirm further Firefox and Safari gains at the expense of Internet Explorer. According to the research firm, Mozilla is likely to hit a milestone this month by capturing one fifth of the browser market. A closer look, however, reveals that browser makers are using sophisticated strategies to aggressively push their browsers onto computers. It seems that the browser wars are heating up once again.

Mozilla Firefox web browser is slowly but surely eating away market share from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE). The latest market share data by Net Applications puts Firefox’ share at 18.41% in May, an increase of 0.65 points from 17.76% in April. Apple’s Safari climbed from 5.81% to 6.25% in the same time frame. Opera and Netscape showed marginal improvements. The only browser to lose share was Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which dropped by 1.08 points from 74.83% in April to 73.75% in May. Apparently, Firefox’ and Safari’s gains came at the expense of IE.

Firefox has been on a roll and capturing market share from Internet Explorer for some time now. Two years ago, Net Applications estimated the IE share at 84.1% - which was more than 10 points above the current level. On the other hand, the only time Firefox’ share dipped was in May 2007 when it slipped 0.9 points compared to the month before and in July 2007 when it dipped by 0.2 points. "Firefox is surging again, but their gains when reviewed over time aren’t out of the ordinary. Other than the stagnation Firefox experienced in mid-2007, their growth has been fairly consistent," said Vince Vizzaccaro, Net Application’s VP of marketing.

According to Net Applications, Firefox is now close to 20% market share, "a major milestone" which could be met as early as next month, especially when we take into consideration that Firefox 3 is set for a mid-June launch. According to Net Applications, Firefox 3 beta showed a 0.2 gain in May. Read our detailed review of Firefox 3 RC2 here.

Another factor contributing to the rise of Safari and Firefox at the expense of IE comes from Mac market share growth. As more people switch to Macs, they use Safari or Firefox. Mac market share gains appear to directly translate to Safari browser gains and, to a smaller part, to Firefox for Mac. "Apple is continuing to see Mac market share growth [and] with IE not being available on the Mac any longer, we’re seeing Safari and Firefox gaining market share by riding the gains of the Mac," Vizzaccaro explained.

However, there’s even more than meets the eye here. Browser makers have begun to use sophisticated, but questionable, methods to push their browser product to users. According to Net Applications, Mozilla quietly changed the Firefox 3 RC1 installation routine in a way that it makes Firefox your default browser automatically, a disturbing break from the usual practice to turn this option to off. Apple started the craze when it began using its Software Update application in March, which comes packaged with iTunes and other Windows software from Apple, to push Safari 3.1 browser to Windows users as a "software update" - no matter if users had Safari already installed or not. Mozilla’s CEO John Lilly was irritated by such a practice, saying that it "borders on malware", but it worked for Apple as Safari tripled its market share. Net Applications called Apple’s practice "a calculated risk."

Apple later modified its Software Update to separate new installations from updates. However, the checkbox along new installations is still turned on by default in Apple’s Software Update application. Some believe that Apple’s practice may have convinced Mozilla to make Firefox 3 RC1 the default browser, but Mr. Vizzaccaro begs to differ. "The option is clearly displayed and labeled, unlike Safari, which misleadingly labeled the Safari install as an ’update’ until the company changed it to an ’install’," he noted. Since Apple and Mozilla have chosen such aggressive methods, we can expect Microsoft to follow suit when IE8 is released.

However, Microsoft could have a hard time offsetting Internet Explorer’s eroding market share as the software giant’s answer to Firefox 3 is still in an early beta stage. Beta 2 is scheduled for an August release. The company did not provided a guideline for the IE8 launch yet, but if everything goes to plan, we do not expect more than two betas and just one release candidate. At its current pace, IE8 could be released in Q4. If our estimate is somewhat close to the actual roadmap, Firefox 3 will have at least a three-month lead over IE8 and enough time to increase its market share.