Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

A Little Perspective

I live in a world dominated by the unfeeling, unaccountable whims of browser vendors and so it is with a 50 lb bag of rock salt that I consume the optimistic projections of Firefox's triumphal ascendence to market dominance.

As it turns out, my skepticism is absolutely justified. Now, this isn't to say that I'm not an optimist – I am, and given what I do for a living, I need to be hopeful about the future. I would have succumbed to serious depression long ago if I weren't deeply hopeful at some level. Clearly, though, big dreams are only rewarded with the depleted melancholy of a future forever deferred. We Ajax hackers color in the margins because we know all-too-well that Firefox hasn't won. Yeah, it's great for the 20% that have picked it up, but we can't count on them. People, it seems, don't easily change their habits regarding which button on the desktop to click to get to "the google".

Lets put the last year's market numbers for browsers in some perspective. From July '07 to July '08, IE 6 market share declined from ~45% to ~26%, or a drop of 19%. Given that we know that the Win2K market share numbers are now well below 5% on the public interwebs, this gives us serious reason to hope: if the remaining 25% could just be convinced to get with the century and run Windows Update (12 times or so), we'll all be able to target the best in late-'90's browser technology. In the same year-ish timeframe, IE 7 went from ~33% to ~47%, a gain of 14%. That leaves 5% of the churn on the table for non-MSFT browsers, most of which was picked up by Firefox. Since Win2K was still below 5% a year ago, who are these users who pick Firefox and not IE 7?

Part of the story about the uptake of IE 7 is the story of Vista. Vista was hovering near 5% in June of last year and a year later had taken a nearly 15% share. Now, it's hard to say anything useful about potential correlations, but if there's a 10% gain in IE 7-by-default installs of an OS, and if some large percentage of that number came at the expense of non-upgraded XP boxen (likely old computers), it wouldn't be hard to spin a yarn about how Firefox is gaining market share primarily at the expense of IE 6. To get a concrete answer to this will likely mean paying $100 for access to "pro" version of the Net Applications numbers, but even without it we can say something very concrete about the power of OS bundling of browsers:

Competitor displacement of bundled browsers on the monopoly market-share OS has a demonstrated year-on-year market-share improvement rate of 4%/year.

That 4% a year is pretty consistent since 2004 as well. Ouch. By way of comparison remember that IE 7 is replacing IE 6 at a rate triple that. Obviously that's not apples-to-apples since every browser's "internal" version replacement rates are much higher than their competitor-displacement-rates, but it's clear that most users aren't making choices about browsers. Auto-upgrades are largely doing their thing and users are making choices about OSes and (mostly) living with whatever shows up on the desktop.

This isn't to say that Firefox can't do better and that it's not having an effect. It appears that the adoption rate for Firefox is going to have improved this year versus last, perhaps significantly. Safari is also making inroads into IE's market-share, both as a result of iTunes bundling and Mac market-share gains in the face of Vista. It's also unlikely that IE 7 and IE 8 would be happening but for the competition that Firefox has brought. But the take-away here is as powerful as it is dispiriting: we may be able to abandon IE 6 in another year or two, but no matter who works to displace it, IE 7 is going to be with us a long, long time. Worse, the sustained rate of competitor-displacement in the browser market is now much, much lower than it was in the previous era of browser competition. In one sense, competition is working in that every browser vendor is creating new versions. But the bigger picture remains: Flash can get to "ubiquitous" across the entire web with new capabilities in roughly 18 months and the Open Web faces a best case replacement time-frame of 5 years.

Reducing that differential from 42 months to zero is now the defining challenge of the Open Web. HTML is back in the hunt. Time to see how fast we can teach it remember the new tricks we're so eager to teach.