IE’s Decline Makes ‘Cross Browser’ More Relevant

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In 2004, when popular online billing web application FreshBooks launched (then called 2ndSite), the browser market was extremely one-sided. Over 91% of web users connected via Internet Explorer. Firefox had just over 3.5%, Netscape less than that, and Safari didn’t even crack 2%. It was okay for FreshBooks to launch supporting only Windows and IE.

It was actually fairly common for web apps of 4 years ago not to be cross browser, or cross platform compliant — which seems absurd given that the ability to work anywhere, on any computer is a major selling point for web apps. But when 9 out of 10 potential customers — or more for some market sectors — are using Internet Explorer, why pour resources into designing for other browsers? (Note that greater than 96% of all web users were on Windows in 2004, compared to about 88% now.)

Flash forward to today and the landscape looks totally different. IE commands under just 70% of the market, Firefox is over 20%, Safari greater than 7%, and even though newcomer Chrome weighs in at just under 1%, we’ve predicted that Google’s browser will grow significantly next year. The search engine is already putting Chrome links on Google.com and YouTube, and in Gmail for IE6 users, plus the browser might start coming pre-installed on PCs next year.

Though IE still has a commanding lead in the browser market, 2009 should see continued growth for Firefox, Chrome, and Safari (though Chrome could slow down the growth of other alternative browsers once it has extensions). Internet Explorer, meanwhile, is expected to continue its decline. As browser parity nears (at least in terms of user reach), cross browser and cross platform functionality is becoming more and more important. Already Firefox and Safari have shares of the market too significant to ignore, and Chrome could get to that point in a hurry.

That’s great news for consumers, who get more choice, and is a mixed blessing for web developers. On one hand, it means even more browsers to test and develop for. However, on the other hand, the rising popularity of open source browsers means a trend toward the adoption of open standards. Competition fueled development means better rendering engines, faster JavaScript interpreters, etc., which in turn means better resulting products. And not just browsers — better web applications will also be a result of heightened browser competition.

The decline of IE might mean more initial development required to make sure the maximum amount of users can access your site or application, but in the long run, it’s a great thing for everyone (except perhaps Microsoft).