An endangered fox - TechCentral

An endangered fox

Duncan McLeod

[By Duncan McLeod] For a number of years now, Mozilla’s Firefox has been a popular and growing alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. It’s estimated that the open-source browser is used by a quarter of all Web users. But its star could be fading.

The rise in Firefox’s popularity has been astonishing if one considers that it is not included as the default browser on Windows or Apple Mac systems.

Most computer users are reluctant to fiddle with their computers and so many simply use what’s included with the operating systems on their machines — and for Windows users, that means Internet Explorer (IE).

As a result of this, the Microsoft browser became the way most people accessed the Web. This is in spite of the fact that for many years IE was an inferior product.

It’s amazing, but a significant number of people still use Microsoft’s ancient IE6 browser, released in 2001. IE6 is bad software. It’s inherently insecure and does not conform to basic Web standards. Yet some very large companies continue to use it.

Given corporate lassitude and consumer indifference then, it’s amazing that Firefox has chalked up 25% of the worldwide market. It’s taken time, but users have slowly switched from IE to Firefox, lured by features not offered in IE, especially in older versions of the Microsoft browser, as well as the ability to extend Firefox’s functionality using third-party plug-ins.

Given that Firefox has proved so successful in wresting a large chunk of the market from IE, it would be fair to assume it will continue to gain market share. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think Firefox is going to lose market share in 2010 and it could even slide into irrelevance within a few years.

Microsoft is working hard to improve IE and the latest version of the software, IE8, is far better than earlier versions (though it still lags far behind its rivals when it comes to adhering to Web standards).

However, it’s not IE that is going to send Firefox’s market share tumbling. Nor will Apple’s Safari have much of an impact outside of the Macintosh world (other than on the iPhone, of course). And Norway’s Opera Software, which is still plugging away at its Opera browser, isn’t likely to expand its market share much beyond its current 2%.

No, the browser that looks set to knock Firefox off the number two spot — and perhaps even have a go at unseating IE further down the line — is the new kid on the block, Chrome, developed by Google in collaboration with open-source developers.

In a short time, Chrome has unseated Safari to become the third-largest computer Web browser. Its market share is still only about 5%, but the speed at which it has overtaken Opera and Safari is telling.

I’ve been using Chrome (beta version 4 for Mac) as my default browser for the past month and, despite it having a little instability, I’m on the verge of ditching Firefox for good.

Why? Well, Chrome is lightning quick next to Firefox. It starts up in an instant, and runs online applications like Gmail noticeably quicker. The software engine underlying Chrome is optimised for speed, especially when it comes to working with online apps.

It also has a cleaner interface that maximises screen real estate. It’s almost as if it’s more fun to use, too.

Ironically, Firefox has long benefited from Google’s largesse: the latter paid tens of millions of dollars to have its search engine be the default in Firefox’s search box.

But in other respects Google is not doing Firefox any favours. It has poached top Firefox engineers to work on the Chrome project.

This may already be having an impact on Firefox: the latest version, 3.6, has been delayed. Versions 3.7 and 4.0 may also slip.

The other thing that looks set to slip is Firefox’s market share. The only question, then, is by how much.

  • McLeod is editor of TechCentral; this column is also published in the Financial Mail

7 Comments

  1. I don’t agree. Google will soon experience a very negative backlash once the Googleopoly report gets more publicity and the public can see how obscenely powerful and dangerous it is to have the world run by one company. When that happens, not even the company’s trite “Don’t be evil” slogan will save them.

    The open-source nature of Firefox means that the system can very easily be upgraded to be just as fast as Chrome so I don’t think Chrome is in any better position than Firefox.

    Funny thing though is that when I first used Chrome for a few months to see what it was about, I couldn’t wait to get back to Firefox…

    The jury is out I suppose…

  2. One word: Plugins. Firefox has a massive base of AddOns/Plugins to choose from that give it the edge. Its more power users that push the limits of their browser so its not for everybody. Having said that Google Chrome with their latest version supports plugins but its going to have to play big catchup before it topples FireFox and its plugins.

    IE and Google are backed by massive names. Some people will prefer the humble Firefox.

    I’m a software web developer and I tend to be on the latest and greatest of every software product available. I’ve tried Chrome and Opera but I still fall back on Firefox.

  3. Don’t agree on your stats used here (where did you get them?). I am no expert here but using just WikiPedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usage_share_of_web_browsers) and eliminating charts that did not give Chrome enough chance (so the oldest I went for was Sept 09) I came out with 6 charts and only 1 showed Chrome beating Safari. Of those same 6 charts, 4 of them showed Firefox growth increasing, one shows it flat and one shows it on a down swing.

    “IE8, is far better than earlier versions (though it still lags far behind its rivals)” – What is it missing that it’s rivals have? There is some CSS support and support for, the unofficial, HTML 5 that others have but nothing that could be pointed to as lagging?

  4. I am neither much of a chrome or firefox user. When I switched to Mac a few years back I started using Safari, now I’m way too invested in the browser to change. I did however give Chrome a try but with it’s current lack of Evernote support it’s not much use to me. I have this opinion, and seeing the comments on SM platforms I do believe that FF is loosing ground, it seems to be slower, more bloated than ever and a lot of tech people are leaving it for googler pastures. It’s just what I’ve noticed. At the end of the day browser wars are about search bars and money and I do think that ff is on a slippery slope downwards.

  5. Firefox’s add-ons are brilliant and I rely heavily on them. Ditching my beloved add-ons is simply impossible at this stage. Since I use a rather large number of add-ons for Firefox, the browser does start slow and it can be a memory hog.

    Google Chrome is faster and I use it frequently as my secondary browser but I’ve never considered it as a replacement for Firefox, simply due to the lack of extensions.
    However, extensions have finally been introduced in the latest Google Chrome beta version, so I may find myself gradually moving to Chrome as the months go by, as they offer more extensions. For me it’s all about the functionality and customisability of the browser to suit my personal needs so add-ons are key. Only time will tell whether Chrome will surpass Firefox in this department.
    I do use a lot of Google’s services so I want Chrome to succeed since it will make “living in the(ir) cloud” easier.

    As for Internet Explorer, haven’t used it in years.

  6. My switch from IE to FF changed my way of interacting with the web. I have tried Chrome, but it lacks the addons and plugins, which FF provides.

    Surfing the net has been a huge pleasure with FF. Maybe it will lose its shine in 2010, but I get huge benefit from using FF that it is highly unlikely that I am going to move on.

    Duncan, good to hear your thoughts though. One thing is for certain is that when it comes to browsers, we have fantastic choice!