5 Reasons Why IE9 Cannot Stop IE's Decline

There are new market share numbers out today. They are especially interesting as they give us a first glimpse how the new generation of browsers, Firefox 4, IE9 and Chrome 10 has been accepted so far. It is always a matter on how you view the numbers and you can always take statistics in the direction you want. If you are Microsoft and want to see it positive, you point to the 3.6% of IE9 market share among Windows 7 users and tell the story that the actual update isn't in place yet and a quarter of downloaders are Firefox and Chrome users.

If you are more pessimistic, then you could look at the plain numbers and notice that overall IE share has been sharply declining in March, while Firefox and Opera were stable, while Chrome and Safari showed strong gains. Should IE9 have lost browser market share in March and what does the current market scenario mean for Microsoft? Microsoft said that we will have to wait a few weeks to see how the adoption of IE9 really plays out, but it is already clear that Microsoft will have to largely rely on its own user base to collect IE9 browser market share. Given the fact that it has been declining for years, that may not be a good sign. In fact, I believe that IE9 will accelerate IE's decline and Microsoft cannot prevent the loss of its market share leadership, if IE isn't aligned with market demand.

Here are five reasons that work against IE.

1. Windows 7

IE9 is only available for Windows 7 and Vista SP2, but Microsoft really ignores Vista at this point in time and only talks about 7. According to net Applications. Windows 7 currently has an OS market share of 24.17%, which is the absolute ceiling for IE9 market share, which was at a total of 1.09% in March. IE9's rivals, especially Firefox 4, is also available for Windows XP, all Vista versions and Mac OS X - and addresses more than 95% of the total OS market. Non-Windows 7 users have to use a browser other than IE9 to be able to display HTML5 content as IE8 does not. I believe that it was a huge mistake to deny Windows XP users access to an updated a modern browser. The more market share Windows 7 will capture, the better it will be for IE9. However, if Windows 7 adoption slows, it will have a catastrophic effect on IE9. Eventually, there is no other way for Microsoft than offering a stripped version of IE9 for older operating systems: According to Net Applications, Windows XP still owns more than half of the OS market.

2. Chrome OS

Chrome OS is an unknown variable. However, if Google can flood the market with cheap cloud computing devices, all of which will run on Chrome, there is the opportunity to dramatically increase Chrome market share and completely shut out Microsoft from these devices. It is unclear how this will affect antitrust-regulations around the globe as the browser essentially is the operating system and offering an app as a secondary browser would be rather silly. The same, of course, goes for Android. The development of a touch interface for Chrome hints to a Chrome smartphone/tablet browser. Microsoft is developing IE9 for Windows Phone 7 as well, but given the enormous market penetration of Android, there is clearly the chance that market shares will shift once Chrome OS is launched and Android versions of Chrome are available. Browsers are turning into a platform game. The larger the addressable platform, the better for the browser. Microsoft neglects its Windows platform by limiting IE9 to Windows 7 and is too late with Windows Phone 7.

3. Upgrade Cycles

We have seen the benefits of accelerated upgrade cycles with Chrome. They create a loyal user base that enjoys to perceiving their browsing as the cutting edge software on the web. Google typically releases a new browser every 6 weeks and updates more than 90% of its active user base within 2 weeks of the release of a new version through forced upgrades. It is a concept that simply works and results in higher usage share. Microsoft has been, since IE7, in a 2 year upgrade cycle. The company needs the entire time frame to develop a new browser and to transition its user base, sort of. IE8 peaked in February with 35.68% market share, which was 62.85% of the IE user base. The remaining 31% are largely stuck with IE6 and IE7. However, the conversion rate was better than that of IE7: IE7 peaked at 35.78% in February 2009 (notice the similarity with IE8), which was a conversion rate of only 51.68% (data provided by Net Applications). However, we know that IE users have a different update behavior than Firefox and Chrome users. They do not upgrade at the point in time when a new version is available. That said, this is a problem for Microsoft as the slow upgrade cycles may alienate more advanced Internet users and shift them to Chrome and Firefox.

4. Marketing

IE9 is, on Windows 7, a fantastic browser that is competitive. It may not have the extensive HTML5 support of Firefox or Chrome, but it has a much more capable hardware acceleration engine - for Windows 7. The product strategy as well as the marketing strategy has not been up to par with the product itself, however, as the interest of users have shifted with the browser market. There is a leading edge of browser users that work as evangelists for an entire product line. Google's Chrome marketing is very limited, yet it is more effective in attracting users for Chrome's developer and beta versions than IE9 versions were. There is a sense of open access that has improved with Microsoft's IETeam blog, but user participation in the entire development process of IE9 was still very limited. Microsoft needs to move away from twisting market share numbers and away from the IE6 paranoia - a problem the company cannot solve anyway anytime soon, due to the high IE6 market share in China. The release of IE9 was focused very much on web sites and web developers and services they can offer. Firefox and Chrome do that as well, but their focus is much more on the user and explaining how they can all benefit from those browsers.         

5. HTML5 and Browser Flexibility

What makes IE9 truly special is Microsoft's change to comply with web standards and resist the need to add its own ideas via proprietary features that no one else uses. There is a move toward standards, but it isn't enough. IE9 is a much better HTML5 browser than IE8, but data provided by html5test.com and caniuse.com suggest that the HTML5 support is still behind Chrome and Firefox and one could almost get the impression that Microsoft only supports the features it considers to be important. This move impacts the flexibility of the browser in various ways and limits the software to become an application interface. The hardware acceleration support is a terrific backend for running apps, but how good is that, if not all HTML5 features are supported? How can you offer developers the full breath of web apps and the opportunity to help build IE9 into a platform that merges with Windows 7/8 rather than a pure browser? Being restricted is a theme that goes along with IE9 - the restriction to Windows 7/Vista SP2, HTML5 limitation, or the fact that there is no way to make it compatible with IE6 applications. However, I should note that Browsium now offers UniBrows, a tool that makes IE8 and IE9 compatible with IE6 apps for a hefty price: The annual base fee is $5000 and the license fee is between $20 and $4 per seat. If your company has 50 employees and you all of them with IE6 support on IE9, then it will cost you $6000 per year - plus support fees that range from $150 and $340.

Sure, the browser market depends on factors that cannot be foreseen and we may have services within a few years that nobody can predict. Microsoft has made a promising step by setting the trend for browser hardware acceleration, but it needs to do more and needs to do it faster, if the web browser plays a critical role in the company's future. Right now, IE9 is not enough.   

Wolfgang Gruener is Director, digital strategy and content experience at American Eagle, where he specializes in strategic data analysis, user behavior models and information architecture (IA), as well as content strategy and governance. He was also Managing Editor of the website TG Daily and contributor to sites including Tom's Guide and Tom's Hardware.