Top web browsers 2019: Chrome rebounds, back to eating the world

Google's popular browser is now used by more than two-thirds of web surfers, based on data from Net Applications. Its gains in May came at the expense of Firefox and Internet Explorer.

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Top browsers, January 2019

Mozilla's Firefox wrapped up a two-month resurgence this week, clawing back some previously-lost user share to return to a level last seen in the middle of 2018.

The open-source browser remains the only major browser committed to using a rendering engine that is not based on Google's Blink or its predecessor, WebKit.

According to web analytics vendor Net Applications, Firefox's share rose by three-tenths of a percentage point in January, reaching 9.9%. The increase was the second consecutive month of user share growth and put Firefox back where it was last June.

Firefox's gains were important, as the browser flirted with dangerous territory as recently as November, when it slumped to below 9%. The trend at the time looked nasty; if the declines had continued at the 12-month average pace, Firefox would have fallen below 7% by August 2019.

The increases of the last two months have altered that forecast. The 12-month average, if continued, would still erode Firefox's user share, but at a much slower tempo: the browser should remain above 9% throughout this year, falling under that bar only in January 2020.

If Mozilla maintains the Firefox user share recovery, its efforts to revitalize the browser - starting with the November 2017 debut of Firefox Quantum - will be validated. What's unclear is whether that work will simply let Firefox survive or if it can trigger a return to a time when the browser was in solid second place (then behind IE) with a quarter of the world's share.

The browser maker does have a message that may resonate in 2019: On Windows, it will soon be the only major browser running on non-Google technologies. In December, Microsoft announced that it would abandon its home-grown rendering and JavaScript engines for those built by Chromium, the open-source project led by Google. Mozilla has already used that to argue people should download and try Firefox, and certainly will do so again.

Net Applications calculates user share by detecting the agent strings of the browsers people run to reach the websites of Net Applications' clients. The firm tallies the visitor sessions rather than count users, as it once did. In other words, Net Applications' data best illustrates user activity.

IE sinks, Edge doesn't

Microsoft's browsers - Internet Explorer (IE) and Edge - also gained ground in January, adding approximately two-tenths of a percentage point to put their combined shares at 12.6%. The increase wasn't unprecedented, as the browsers posted in-the-black numbers four out of the 12 months in 2019. One month does not a trend make, however.

The increase was solely due to Edge, which rose by half a percentage point to 4.6%, a number that meant about 11% of all Windows 10 users ran the browser in January. The latter figure has been an important metric, as it has showed the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for the Windows 10-only browser. Plainly put, there has been little to none, although it also has occasionally climbed rather than fallen.

Microsoft's decision to go "full-Chromium" with Edge - to effectively give up the fight against Chrome's dominance and join it by crafting a doppelgänger - was a bet that the browser could survive, even grow, under that strategy. The question is whether there will be much of an Edge left by the time Microsoft switches technologies. As a result, January's uptick had to be welcome by Microsoft.

On the other hand, IE dropped nearly four-tenths of a percentage point last month, sliding to 7.9%, a record low for the browser that once lorded it over the world - at least the worldwide web - with as much impunity as any of history's monarchs. IE was used on about 9% of all Windows PCs in January, also an all-time low.

Microsoft may well applaud the downward spiral of IE, as the browser has been maintained solely for legacy purposes in enterprises. There are, in fact, good arguments to be made that Microsoft will drop IE as soon as it has built "full-Chromium" Edge.

Chrome grabs more share...yawn

Net Applications pegged Chrome's user share at 67.3% for January, a one-tenth of a percentage point boost. It was the ninth increase in the previous 12 months.

Google's browser remained on a steep trend line, with its 12-month average indicating it would crack 68% in March and 70% in July. Each time Chrome takes a pause that could be interpreted as a high-water mark, within a month or two it jumps up again to maintain momentum.

Elsewhere, Apple's Safari added three-tenths of a percentage point to its user share, ending January with an even 4%, the browser's highest mark since April 2018. Its portion of all Macs also grew, climbing to 37.8% - or more than two-and-a-half points above December - even though the operating system share of macOS remained above 10.6% for the second straight month.

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