Browser wars

9 minute read

The choices

Recently there’s been a lot of press surrounding browsers and which is the most popular, so I’ve gathered some statistics as to how browser choice affects us here at Sign-Up.to. The main players on the market are Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera.  Sometimes there is far less choice – for instance on a smart phone, or in corporate environments – something I’ll discuss later.

Here at Sign-Up.to our staff are allowed to choose their own browser. This is partially because we believe in freedom on the web, and that we are all likely to be most effective using the environment that suits us best (we also extend this choice to OS, although 90% of us do use Windows on our primary machine). Another good reason is that as a web application development company, we need to test and support our products on all main platforms, so we all have to have the main browsers installed anyway.

Which internet browser do we choose?

A quick survey of the office shows the following breakdown of browser of choice:

Not a single one of us chooses IE as our primary browser – this is a long way from typical! Most online “browser wars” monitoring sites put IE at over 50% of market share – and this is an all time low. So why, if so many of us run Windows, do none of us choose to use IE as our primary browser?

1) It is slow – although I’m aware that it doesn’t necessarily seem slow if you’ve never tried anything faster. As a Chrome fan-boy (often cited as being the fastest browser available), on the occasions that I switch to IE for testing I am regularly appalled by its slothful nature.

2) It is a law unto itself. If you’ve ever had a hand in front-end web development, you’ll know not only that it is important to test in as many browsers as you can, but also that the others all tend to behave in a similar way, whereas IE often ignores accepted standards and costs you precious time. Of course, we still need to use it – many of our customers use it – but it would appear that none of us loves it enough to be willing to put its colours on our mast.

3) Other browsers, Firefox in particular, have much better source code and javascript debugging plugins available, saving our interaction and design teams precious time.

Which browser do our customers use?

Interestingly, our customers neither follow the general trend of 50+% IE usage, but nor do they completely shun IE as we do. IE is used by around 37% of our users, with Firefox a close second (note our statistics are based on the month of October 2010 and exclude our own use of our systems).

So why are our customers more likely to have chosen to deviate from Internet Explorer? We think it’s because, like us, they’ve realised they can get so much more from their web experience with a different browser, and with web applications like ours, the benefits are far more obvious. For instance, while we’ve spent a long time ensuring our new email design tools are as quick as can be, there’s no denying that they are a little sluggish at times in IE – not so in Chrome!

As we progress in the Internet age traditional, static, information-only web sites represent a smaller slice of the pie, and content rich web applications are becoming more common. As this happens, the speed of your browser will become more and more important. Is this the end for IE? There are two reasons why I don’t think this is the case:

Internet Explorer 9 is coming soon

There’s a new version of Internet Explorer on the horizon: IE9. We saw the public beta launch in September, and just last week the sixth IE9 platform preview became available for test-drive. In their eyebrow raising “beauty of the web” campaign, Microsoft are assuring the world that their newest browser not only “introduces support for modern web standards”, but will also be much faster.

At this point I imagine you’re in one of 3 camps: you either don’t really care which browser you use, you’re a fan of a particular browser (probably not IE), or you’re a web developer in which case you are howling with laughter on the floor, unable to see for the torrent of tears invoked by sheer disbelief at Microsoft’s boldness. To date, Internet Explorer has been one of the slowest and least standards compliant browsers on the market – a real pain for web developers.

Mirth aside, it is good to hear Microsoft make these statements because it does suggest they’ve listened and have taken steps to put their browser back into a state where it can compete on merit. Many benchmarking tests have demonstrated that IE 9 sets a good pace, in some cases coming second only to Chrome’s performance. With full HTML5 and CSS3 support in IE9, perhaps developing for the web will become less arduous in the future. This is A Good Thing, but there is still one problem lurking in wait for us:

Large organisations are slow to upgrade their systems

So hooray for IE9 – if you’re lucky enough to work somewhere hip like Sign-Up.to you’ve probably already tried out IE9 beta. Spare a thought however for those who aren’t allowed to so much as set their browser home page, let alone install an alternative. Plenty of organisations out there, and many branches of the UK government, fall into this category, and are still forcing their staff to use IE version 6. IE6 was released in 2001, and IE7 replaced it in 2006. Still, nearly 5 years later, this browser represents an extremely disappointing chunk of market share – around 16% at present.

Despite this, Sign-Up.to does not support IE6. Sure, you can just about use our system in IE6, but it isn’t pretty, or pleasant. While 16% seems like a notable lump of Internet users, a tiny proportion of our clients use it, and what’s more, we’re not alone in not supporting IE6. Neither do Facebook nor Google Apps – two web applications that we use an awful lot.

What do you think?

Have I been too harsh on IE? I’m rather more positive about its future – but are you? What’s your browser of choice? Let us know in the comments!