IE’s Decline Makes ‘Cross Browser’ More Relevant

By Josh Catone

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 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).

  • Phil

    Well, that was a great post about nothing!

  • I think the browser competition is great. Has said in the article Its great when competition drives them to be better. Firefox better improve faster than chrome or it will take firefox market share faster the 20% of IE’s.

  • It’s nice to see some competition for IE. Frankly, I doubt Microsoft would’ve have put any real effort into developing a better IE without Firefox.

    Unfortunately, I’ve seen some changes in Firefox and Safari that remind me of the last “browser war”. Seeing CSS properties prefixed with moz and webkit is a big red flag for me. I know that many of these experimental properties are pre-cursors to CSS3 features, but any intentional deviation from web standards is discouraging.

  • I know that many of these experimental properties are pre-cursors to CSS3 features, but any intentional deviation from web standards is discouraging.

    It’s this sort of deviation that appears to be the only way of getting any of these new features implemented into CSS at the moment.

  • Satish S

    Why is no one talking about Opera?

  • It’s this sort of deviation that appears to be the only way of getting any of these new features implemented into CSS at the moment.

    Again, this sounds exactly like the things that were said when the IE filter property was introduced. If they want to push CSS3 forward, why not use the proposed CSS property name rather than a clearly vendor specific one. If I want to make a future proof stylesheet, I have to add 3 rules for one property.

    Firefox pushed CSS2 rendering forward without relying on vendor specific stuff. I have no problem with adding new features, but for a browser that was built upon standards, it seems off to deviate.

  • @Satish S: Good question! In many ways Opera has better standards support than any browser, including Firefox. I feel a bit like Opera is the quiet kid in the corner who always does their homework but won’t ever be popular in school.

  • @Satish S and Meitar:

    Funny you asked that. I asked my younger (aged 12, etc. the new generation basically) cousins what browser they used, and their reply was: Firefox if we’re on Windows, and Safari if we’re on our dad’s/mom’s mac.

    I asked them if they tried Chrome or Opera, and their response?

    “Yeah, but they don’t have the kind of plug-ins and custom themes that Firefox has.”

    Personalization. The new consumer buzz-word. ;)

  • mathieuf

    Opera is still a small player, unfortunately. It has always been the leader in standards support, and technological innovation. (The first with tabs, and many other features.) It supports a variety of skins; is that old technology for XLCowBoy’s cousins? It was always the fastest browser, though I have not timed it recently. (For Firefox speed, don’t load up on plugins.)

    Opera, keep up the great work! You have fans out here.

  • bel

    I’m really, REALLY tired of spending time and effort on cross-browser, forward and backward compatibility. It eats up so much time that I could be spending on more interesting and rewarding work and play. So, I’m just sick of spending resources there. Personally, I’d very be happy if one browser took 100% market share, that would be HEAVEN for a while, and the trade-off worth it. I guess I don’t have the energy I used to when I started in this industry (its been drained by all the scripting and testing and disappointment and frustration and compromise that has gone into cross-browser, cross-version compatibility efforts over the years).
    Bring on a monopoly, I need a rest.

  • At least cross browser development is easier than it used to be. For example the inconsistent box model (padding included, or extra to a box width) is not an issue on modern browsers, and JS libraries can normalize most browser differences.

    If IE6 could be squeezed out, then cross browser support would be even easier.

  • I love how SitePoint nearly always excludes Opera…

  • Jim

    Now if IE would just go away my work would just be so easy.

  • Stew

    Opera do great work and make some great headways, but no one in the “real world” really cares about them. They have no visible effect on the web as far as everyday users ( and therefore clients ) are concerned. It seems more often than not, in my experience,that the only people talking about Opera are the ones asking why noone is talking about Opera. The fact they keep needing to ask is surely explanation enough.

    Also, this article is surely 2 years out of date.

  • Canciller

    I just left IE6… tired of Microsoft stupidity.

  • A-OK

    Cross-browser compatibility? If making sure your website works on all browsers takes a lot of time and effort for you, you’re not a good web developer.

  • Tom N.

    Now if IE would just go away my work would just be so easy.

    Amen to that! I spent some time yesterday creating extra .js functions just to get some simple hover states to work in IE6. About 88% of our users still connect to our site via IE6, I wish there was a way to abolish it…

  • It’s time for everyone to upgrade that old browser. The common user has no idea about the difficulties of supporting IE6. If developers stop worrying about conforming to it, except for a little note that informs the user to upgrade their browser, eventually people will catch the drift.

  • How come just about every discussion ends up as a discussion of IE6 and its crapness? (Not that it isn’t crap, but it’s like someone out there has an ‘IE6 is crap’ script that posts the comments to every single thread, no matter what.)

Get the latest in Front-end, once a week, for free.