Mac Musings

Microsoft Is Not an Unstoppable Juggernaut

Dan Knight - 2009.12.22 - Tip Jar

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Microsoft is not an unstoppable juggernaut.

Repeat that to yourself: "Microsoft is not an unstoppable juggernaut."

Last month it was widely reported that Firefox had surpassed Internet Explorer as the most popular browser in Germany. And this week we're hearing reports that Firefox 3.5 is the world's most popular browser version, eclipsing Internet Explorer (IE) 7.

Way to go, Mozilla!

While Microsoft has been watching its virtual monopoly in the personal computer operating system market decline slightly month after month, Windows continues to dominate, Microsoft Office is the world's de facto standard for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint respectively), and IE still beat out Firefox for worldwide user share - when you count all versions of IE vs. all versions of Firefox.

What's most interesting is the difference in browser versions. IE 6 has been around since August 2001, and according to StatCounter, it still accounts for about 14% of the browser market. IE 7 was released in October 2006 and has fallen from a high of 43% at the start of 2009 to 22% today. IE 8, released in March 2009, has just edged past the 20% mark.

Current browser version market share according to StatCounter
Current browser version market share according to StatCounter.

Between these three versions, that's 56% of the market, and there are a few people still using earlier versions of Internet Explorer. (The last version for the Mac was IE 5.2, although you can no longer obtain it from Microsoft.)

Firefox reached version 2.0 status in October 2006 - one week after IE 7 was released, and Firefox 3.0 reached the market in June 2008. By late 2008, Firefox 3.0 has surpassed 2.0 as the most widely used version, and version 3.5 was released at the end of June 2009. In about 10 weeks, it passed version 3.0 to become the most widely used version of Firefox.

Browser share, mid-2009 to present
Browser share, mid-2009 to present.

Today Firefox 2.0 has about 2% market share, 3.0 has approximately 8%, and 3.5 has reached 23% - enough to move it past IE 7 and become the most widely used browser version on the Internet today, even though the three most recent versions combined have less market share (33%) than the combined share for IE.

How Firefox Did It

The secret to this success? Firefox has been marketing its free browser for years, has done a great deal to grow awareness of its alternative to IE, and has made it easy to update.

While IE dominates on Windows, it does so by being the default browser - just part of Windows, as far as most users are concerned. So most Windows users don't look to upgrade to a new version of IE until they get a new version of Windows - they just seem to go together. That's why Internet Explorer has a much more gradual growth and decline rate for each version than does Firefox.

When you install Firefox, you get a browser that "phones home" every time you use it. It wants to check themes and plugins and the program itself to see if everything is up to date. If not, it asks you if you want to update this theme, that plugin, or Firefox itself. Result: A much steeper adoption rate for new versions - and that regardless of platform. (Firefox is available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux; IE is only available for Windows.)

Whither Apple?

Although Apple has the #2 personal computer operating system, its share of the browser market is a distant third - pretty much the way Linux is a distant third in operating system market share. Although Safari is available for OS X and Windows, it's not widely used on Windows PCs and not available at all for Linux. According to StatCounter, Safari 4.0 (which requires OS X 10.4.11 or later) has 3-4% of the market.

Mac OS X has a built-in Software Update feature that's an important component in keeping Mac users up to date. Software Update lets you know about OS updates, security patches, and updates to applications from Apple - Safari included. Anyone using OS X 10.4 has the ability to update to 10.4.11 and Safari 4.0 for free, making it the dominant version by a considerable margin.

2 + 2 = 1?

Interestingly enough, Firefox is the #2 browser on Windows PCs and on Macs. It may well be the top browser on Linux, although the size of the Linux personal computer market remains relatively small. With a strong second place on Windows and OS X, Firefox has managed to take the #1 browser spot in our site logs for quite a while now - although our December stats have Safari edging it out for the first time in ages.

Low End Mac's readership is far from representative of the Web at large, but while OS X users edge out Windows users by a few percentage points, the lack of a modern version of IE on the Mac and the low market share of Safari on Windows PCs makes Firefox the overall winner - with the occasional fluke month like December 2009.

Beating Microsoft

A big part of taking a bite out of Microsoft is building a more unified market. Before OS X 10.6 was released, version 10.5 had three to four times as many users are 10.4, and 10.4 beat 10.3 by a similar ratio. I haven't heard figures for 10.6, but I suspect that over the coming year it will surpass 10.5 and eventually reach the same kind of dominance 10.3, 10.4, and 10.5 had before it.

The same thing is happening with Firefox. As each new version reaches the market, the majority of Firefox users quickly test and then adopt the new version. In the case of Firefox 3.5, it took less than three months to displace version 3.0 as most popular, and today it has about 2.5x as many users.

The key to beating Microsoft is the software update mechanism. As long as Firefox and Apple make it relatively transparent and painless for users to keep their software up to date, their markets won't experience the same kind of fragmentation the Windows market knows (three versions of IE at over 10% and three versions of Windows - XP, Vista, and 7 - competing with each other).

Along the same line, one of the biggest obstacles to Linux market growth is the incredible fragmentation of versions and graphical user interfaces. While they all bear the name Linux, it's far from a unified market. Ubuntu has done a lot to address that and very much dominates, but even there we have Kubuntu and Xubuntu alternatives. To become a true force, Linux needs to create a far more unified market - which flies in the face of the Open Source philosophy and will continue to relegate Linux to third place status.

But as Firefox and OS X have shown, markets that Microsoft has dominated are vulnerable. Microsoft is not an unstoppable juggernaut.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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