Take that, Microsoft: IE drops below 50%

For everyone who ever thought that once Microsoft had a market by the throat that it would never lose significant market share, I present the news that Internet Explorer's share of the world Web browser market has dropped to 49.8%. Finally!

While the Department of Justice couldn't bust Microsoft's Web browser monopoly even though it had won its antitrust suit against Microsoft, open-source software is finally cracking Microsoft's once iron grip on Web browsers. Firefox and, more recently, Google with its Chrome Web browser have managed to pry Microsoft's fingers from around users' throat.

They did it the old-fashioned way: they delivered better products.

When Firefox first appeared in 2004 as a Web browser-only spin-off from the all-in-one Mozilla Internet application suite, Internet Explorer was sitting pretty with more than 80% of the market. But even before it reached the 1.0 milestone, Firefox 0.9 was winning fans. It was faster and safer, and its XML User Interface Language (XUL) had opened up a world of themes and extensions for both developers and users that continues to redefine what we expect from a Web browser.

For years, Firefox slowly eroded Internet Explorer's stronghold. In response, Microsoft started to improve IE. The company finally dumped the truly awful IE 6 and produced two much better browsers, first, IE 7 and then IE 8.

But, while Microsoft was busy producing browsers that were comparable to the newer marks of Firefox, Google was working on its own redesign and radical speeding up of the Web browser: Chrome.

Like Firefox, the first version of Chrome was a winner, and it's only gotten better since then. I'm not the only one to think so. According to StatCounter, "Google's Chrome continues to increase market share at an impressive rate and has more than tripled from 3.69% in September 2009 to 11.54% in September this year."

There all kinds of reasons why Chrome has gotten so popular so quickly. My favorite is that Chrome is fast. You don't need to be a computer expert to figure it out. Run any other Web browser, and then run Chrome. You'll see it, too.

As a result, Chrome has been taking increasingly large bites out of IE's market share. That 11.54% was just enough, combined with all the other alternative Web browsers, to push Microsoft below the 50% mark.

I don't think Microsoft is going to be clawing its way back to the top anytime soon. True, Internet Explorer 9, which is now in beta, has gotten plenty of good reviews. Unfortunately, Microsoft is going to be offering it to Windows 7 and Vista users only; XP users are out of luck. Guess what, Microsoft? XP is still the number one operating system with about 60% of the market.

Eventually — and that's the key word here — most Windows users will switch to Windows 7, but by the time that happens, the majority of users will be solidly using Firefox, Chrome, Safari or Opera. The age of the Internet Explorer monopoly is finally over.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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