Chrome threatens Safari's browser share spot, Firefox falters

Net Applications' revised data shows Microsoft's IE8 converting IE7 users at even faster clip

Google's Chrome browser is closing in on Apple's Safari for the third spot in browser market share, Web metrics company Net Applications said this weekend.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), meanwhile, again lost share last month, although the company's newest browser, IE8, surged past the 10% mark to end July at 12.5%, more than half the share of the once-dominant IE7 edition.

Net Applications' July results introduced a new methodology that weights browser usage share by the estimated size of each country's Internet population. According to Net Applications, countries such as China, which has an estimated 253 million Internet users, were previously underrepresented, while others, like the U.S., were over-represented in its unique visitor tallies.

The bottom line: Net Applications' new methodology throws a monkey wrench into earlier browser rankings.

Safari took the biggest hit, falling from a May "old-method" share of 8.4% to the new July share of just 4.1%. (Net Applications applied the new methodology retroactively to its browser numbers so that, in the revised data, Safari's May share was just 3.7%.)

U.S.-based Net Applications explained the change on its Web site, where it specifically called out Apple's plunge in both browser and operating system share. "Since Mac share in the U.S. is significantly higher than the rest of the world, Mac and Safari shares drop in the global reports," said the company.

Discarding the old data put a new spin on each browser's current share, although it didn't really change the overall trends. IE, which accounted for 67.7% of all browsers used in July, continues to lose ground to Firefox, at 22.5%, Safari (4.1%) and Chrome (2.6%), all which gained share last month. Opera, which by Net Applications' revamped estimate accounted for almost 2% of all browsers, remained flat, as it has for months.

The tweaked numbers, however, put Chrome in much more favorable light compared to Safari, the current No. 3 browser. Previously, the separation between Safari and Chrome was a daunting 6.6 percentage points; now the gap is only 1.5 points. Both browsers added to their shares during the last two months: Safari grew by 0.37 percentage point, while Chrome gained 0.41 percentage point.

Even if Chrome keeps up its pace, however, it will need more than a year to pass Safari. The Google browser's average gain during the last 11 months, while twice that of the average monthly increase by Safari, has an edge of just 0.12 percentage point per month. At that rate, it will take Chrome 13 months to slip by Safari.

Chrome's growth trend may change in the future, when it releases versions for the Mac and Linux; currently, Chrome is only available in a production edition for Windows. Google has released developer-only versions of Chrome for the Mac and Linux, but has not set a time table for code suitable for day-to-day use.

Net Applications' changes also overturned earlier orthodoxy that claimed, for instance, that Microsoft's ancient IE6 was nearing extinction. That's hardly the case by the new numbers: Where previous estimates had pegged IE6 at just 16.9% in May, the revised data had the browser at 30.2% for May, 29.2% for June and 27.2% in July.

IE7's share, on the other hand, has been knocked even harder by the introduction of IE8, according to Net Applications retooled calculations. In the last 90 days, IE7 lost an amazing 10.7 percentage points, while IE8 added 8.8 points. Microsoft switched on automatic updates for IE6 and IE7 users in late April.

It's likely that IE8 will continue to grow at the expense of IE6 and IE7 this month; starting Aug. 25, Microsoft will begin pushing IE8 to enterprises via Windows Server Update Services (WSUS).

Net Applications' June-July data also revealed an impressive, although incomplete, conversion of Firefox 3.0 users to the new Firefox 3.5, which Mozilla launched on June 30. During July, the former dropped 3.8 percentage points, while Firefox 3.5 climbed 4.1 points. Mozilla has yet to formally offer the upgrade to Firefox 3.0 users, although those who have initiated an update have been allowed to migrate to the faster Version 3.5.

Overall, however, Firefox is down 1.4 percentage points in the last three months from its high of 23.8% in April.

While Net Applications' new methodology brought its numbers for Safari, Chrome and Opera closer into line with data from StatCounter, an Irish analytics vendor, there remains a disparity between the two firms' IE and Firefox shares. While Net Applications pegged July's shares for IE and Firefox at 67.7% and 22.5%, respectively, StatCounter said they were 60.1% and 30.5%.

Both companies' data may soon play an important part in the browser race. Two weeks ago, Microsoft announced it offered European antitrust regulators a proposal that would insert a "ballot screen" into Windows XP, Vista and the upcoming Windows 7. The ballot would let users select an alternate browser if they had IE has their default. The browsers on that ballot are to be determined by EU usage share, with that share coming from "a source commonly agreed between Microsoft and the European Commission," according to the deal.

Net Applications measures browser usage by tracking the machines that surf to the 40,000 sites it monitors for clients, which results in a data pool of about 160 million unique visitors per month. Its current browser share data is available online.

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