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What You Need to Know About the Browser War

By far, the most important application on your computer is your Web browser. Surprisingly, many people don't even know what a Web browser is, much less which one they're using. Google recently created a site that very clearly explains this at whatbrowser.org. Visiting that site will give you a basic introduction and tell you exactly what browser/version you are using. As recently as 2002, Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser (IE) had an overwhelming 95% market share. It would have seemed very unlikely, if not impossible, for anyone else to compete. However, in less than seven years, IE has dropped to less than 65% market share, losing share mostly to Mozilla Firefox, but also to Apple Safari, Google Chrome and Opera.

In the last month, there have been two interesting developments. The first one is a statistical fluke, but according to StatCounter, Firefox 3.5 has temporarily overtaken IE6, IE7 and IE8 to become the most popular browser globally. This is the first time in over a decade that the most popular browser version has not been a version of Internet Explorer. The reason for this is because IE7 usage has been dropping as users switch to IE8. The reality is that in a couple weeks or less, IE8 will once again overtake Firefox 3.5. But it is an amazing accomplishment nonetheless. The other interesting development is that Google Chrome, which was released less than 17 months ago, has overtaken Apple Safari, a browser that has been around since 2003. This is a pretty significant accomplishment since Google is now in third place and has a lot of momentum. The graph below shows the current browser market share according to Net Applications. I've broken out the IE versions, since they each have such a large market share.

Chart shows marketshare of browsers

As you can see, there are really only seven browsers that you need to understand. I've outlined them in the chart below.

Browser Released Notes Advantages
Internet Explorer 6 Aug. 27, 2001 Default in Windows XP. Still very popular with corporations and businesses due to legacy intranet and business applications. Compatible with outdated business applications.
Internet Explorer 7 Oct. 18, 2006 Default in Windows Vista. Fixed many of the compatibility issues with IE6 and added support for modern Web technologies, but wasn't quickly adopted by businesses due to compatibility concerns. None. Switch to IE8.
Internet Explorer 8 Mar. 19, 2009 Default in Windows 7. Continued to improve modern Web support and added backward compatibility functionality. Best integration with Outlook. Built-in IE7 compatibility mode.
Firefox (up to 3.5) Nov. 9, 2004 Reignited the browser wars by bringing several browser innovations into the mainstream, such as tabbed browsing, customizable extensions and tighter security. Extensions and customization.
Chrome (up to 4.0) Dec. 11, 2008 Based on the same core technology as Safari, Chrome provides the speediest browsing experience at the expense of some of the complex features of the other browsers. Speed and simplicity.
Safari (up to 4.0) Jun. 23, 2003 Primarily used on the Mac, Safari offers an elegant, simple interface that quickly replaced IE on Apple computers. Although a Windows version is available, it is seldom used. Fast, stable browser for Mac users.
Opera (up to 10) Originally in 1996 While it doesn't have much market share, Opera is known for innovating many of the features that we take for granted today. Tons of innovative features over the years.

So what do I recommend? Typical users can probably stick with the most recent version of the browser that came with their computer (IE on Windows; Safari on Mac). This avoids the confusion of juggling multiple browsers. However, if you are using IE6 or IE7, it is very important to upgrade to IE8 if possible. Major websites like YouTube and Facebook are beginning to reduce functionality for IE6 users, so you're not getting the full experience unless you upgrade.

For those of you who want something better than the default browser, but don't want to spend a lot of time tweaking, I'd recommend trying Google Chrome. It's the fastest browser available and is extremely simple to use. I use Chrome for around 30% of my day-to-day browsing. The biggest advantage that I notice over Firefox is the ability to drag tabs out of the browser to create a new window without reloading the page. This is a huge advantage when you're watching online video, since the video doesn't have to reload.

If you want a ton of flexibility and enjoy spending the time to customize your online experience, then your best option is Firefox. Although Chrome has recently added extensions, there is nowhere near the variety that you can find for Firefox. With extensions, you can do things like:

  • change the way the browser looks
  • synchronize your bookmarks across multiple computers
  • hide all banner ads and text ads from sites
  • seamlessly merge multi-page articles into a single page
  • add FTP functionality

Because so much of our computing time is now spent in a Web browser, it's important to find one that fits your needs. Fortunately, due to the intense competition over the last five years, browsers are improving very quickly. Hopefully, this article will help you find a browser that meets your needs and enables you to discuss the browser war intelligently with the geeks in your life.

Filed Under: web

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