Monday, July 06, 2009

The Decline of Internet Explorer

During the browser wars of the mid to late 1990s many initially had their money on Netscape to win as Microsoft were mostly playing catch up. However the sheer monetary might of Microsoft soon told and at the turn of the century Internet Explorer was used by 96% of web surfers.

I am sure that when the developers of Netscape fragmented and announced that they were working on a new browser, Microsoft were hardly shaking in their boots. After all by 2002 Netscape was effectively dead, although it took several years for Netscape to realise this.

Firefox

However it wasn't long before Microsoft once again underestimated the browser market and announced that they would no longer be updating their browser after IE6, instead stating that IE would be updating only when new versions of Windows Operating systems appeared.

Indeed Microsoft's IE6 came out in 2001, IE7 at the end of 2006, about the same time as Windows Vista. A lot had happened in that time and Microsoft had left themselves once again with a lot of catching up to do. In the same time Mozilla had released 3 versions of their new Firefox browser and made tabbed browsing, search boxes and Extensions/Add Ons the way to go.

The browser wars have been raging again ever since. Apple joined in 2007 with Safari and Google at the end of 2008 with Chrome.

2009

2009 has been a great year in terms of web browser development, Firefox released version 3.5 of their browser, Apple version 4 of Safari, Microsoft IE8 and even Google updated Chrome. With the greater choice this entails, it seems that many people are jumping ship and swapping browsers.

Today, Internet Explorer has just 59% of the browser market, the lowest for more than a decade. This is despite the recent release of IE7 and IE8. Firefox has shot up from about 5% in 2005 to now account for about 31.2% of the browser market.

Even new boys like Safari and Chrome have overtaken Opera (1.56%), with 4.07% and 3.3% respectively.



What is apparent is that despite the release of IE8 this year, Microsoft have still lost almost 10% of their market share in just 6 months. This trend is only likely to continue, especially as Microsoft have announced that in Europe, they won't be releasing Windows 7 with Internet Explorer, or any browser for that matter. Giving much more incentive to switch to Firefox, Safari or Chrome.

Browser of Choice

Although IE still has around double the market share of Firefox, its closest rival, it is much closer when the browser versions themselves are compared.

IE7 had 45% of the market share at the start of the year, now it is down to just 29%, with Firefox 3 right behind at 25% (up from 20%). Of course many of those who stopped using IE7 switched to IE8, but not all of them, clearly some are moving to Firefox. If more make the switch from IE7 to either Firefox or IE8, then, for the first time in more than a decade, Internet Explorer will no longer be the world's most popular browser.

Web surfers have never had such a rich choice, nor such a rich browsing experience as they have right now, and things look as though they will just keep getting better.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Internet Explorer 8

Microsoft disables automatic IE 8 downloads | The Register
Microsoft will cushion you from the Internet Explorer 8 standards mess with software to prevent automatic download of its next browser to your machine.

Ask any web designer what their least favourite browser is and it's a good bet that Internet Explorer will be their reply. It isn't because of some anti-Microsoft sentiment, or because it isn't as cool or as customisable as other browsers, nor even anything to do with page loading speed, but quite simply because it doesn't follow the official W3C web standards. Microsoft acknowledges this problem and since Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) has been working to bring its browser into line with W3C specifications.

The Browser Wars

The browser wars of the 1990s between the now defunct Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer started off this problem, as each browser began following only some standards, or worse, only following their own standards.

Surprisingly, back then it was Microsoft's browser that was the most standards compliant, and Netscape that used its own 'standards'. By the time that IE had won the browser war and was used by 96% of web surfers, it too had moved onto supporting its own proprietary standards. At this point it wasn't too much of a problem, as web designers could simply design for IE, as it was a fairly safe bet that most of the viewers of a website would be using it.

It wasn't all rosy however, the browser war had meant there had been a stagnation in bug fixes and actual development, web designers were stuck designing in lengthy, bloated code as the slicker design method of HTML and CSS didn't work properly with Internet Explorer.

CSS

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) were meant to make the design process far, far easier and also make the viewing of web pages faster and more aesthetically pleasing. Web pages using CSS load faster, are easier to alter and allow more complicated layouts, but for years after CSS was accepted as a standard, web designers were stuck using the older, more troublesome table based designs.

With the decline of Netscape that preceded its eventual demise, it was clear that Microsoft were in the driving seat of website design. From 2002 many web designers created websites aimed only at IE5.5 and IE6,  by this point IE had become mostly CSS compliant. Anyone attempting to design to official W3C standards, was asking for trouble and many headaches.

Then the second browser war started.

Firefox

Firefox was more standards compliant than IE, which meant that website designers had another browser to consider when designing a website, especially as Firefox became instantly popular and standards compliant websites were back in vogue.

Many designers were therefore creating W3C compliant websites, and uncovering the power of CSS. But upon viewing them in IE, they'd discover things like the double margin bug, three pixel bug, float drop problems and also the fact that IE6 doesn't handle transparent PNGs.

More than a few of them were scratching their heads and wishing 'If only IE were like Firefox!' With the popularity of Firefox soaring, accounting for 21% of the browser market by the end of 2008, it seemed that Microsoft heard.

IE7

There are workarounds and so called hacks to get websites to look in IE6 as they do in Firefox but they were a hassle and meant much fiddling on the part of the designer. Firefox and Apple's Safari were far more forgiving and getting more and more popular with users, in response Microsoft released IE7.

Although still not fully standards complaint, IE7 was the most compliant browser yet and Microsoft promised to go even further with IE8.

IE8

IE8 is fully standards compliant, but after a decade of IE only designs, that may not be a good thing. If your website is fully standards compliant, or was aimed primarily at Firefox but with a few IE hacks, you should be OK, but if it was aimed mainly at IE6, you may have problems. It is certainly worth checking out IE8 to see what your website looks like as you may find, particularly if it is a few years old, that is doesn't look as good as it did.

It seems that Microsoft have delayed IE8 to allow businesses to do precisely this. Microsoft did see this problem coming and have added two viewing modes for IE8, the default mode which is the standards compliant viewing mode and compatibility mode, which allows the user to view the website as if viewing with an older version of IE. Sadly though, few people are switching modes, meaning a lot of websites are not displaying correctly in IE8.

Although this may not be too much of a problem at the moment, especially with Microsoft's delaying the release of the browser, it could become a problem very quickly. Although it was released only two years ago, IE7 accounts for 50% of the browser market,  the previous version, IE6 just 20%.

Two events this year are likely to push the uptake of IE8 to be faster than that of IE7.

The release of Windows 7 later this year, which will most likely ship with IE8 as standard and also the fact that mainstream support for Windows XP ends in April 2009. Those buying a new PC will have the choice of Vista, or Windows 7, both of which will likely have IE8 as their default browser.

If you're not sure what your website will look like, you can use this website to preview your website in IE8 (and other versions of IE) for free. Needless to say the Horizon Web Development website and the Horizon Flash Memory website display perfectly.

Others, aren't so lucky.   



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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

End of an Era

This past week has been a sad week for web users, with the final death knell for Netscape. For some it is a sad day and the end of an era, others would say a well flogged old horse has been finally put out of its misery.

When I first starting browsing the web there was really only ever Netscape, it was launched in 1994 and dominated the browser market for most of the nineties, offering better features, faster browsing and generally being more advanced than any of its competitors.

For most internet users today that probably seems pretty hard to believe, but there was an internet before Microsoft Internet Explorer, which itself wasn't launched until 1995 and didn't really start to compete with Netscape until version 3 (IE3), released in 1996. At its peak in 1996 Netscape accounted for 90% of the browser market (at the same time IE had about a 4% market share).

Netscape just had more to offer back then, it was a full internet suite with a built in mail reader, very similar to Mozilla Thunderbird of today, a WYSIWIG HTML editor, that surprisingly at the time was a pretty good match for Microsoft's paid for, Frontpage.

For me Netscape Communicator 4.7, released 1999, was the one that remember most, chiefly because it was the one that I used the longest and also because it was just about the last version of Netscape that I used as my main browser.

This was the peak of the so called 'First Browser War' and unfortunately Netscape dropped the ball. Netscape 5 was in development for a long time, before finally being scrapped. By the time Netscape was purchased by AOL and work began on Netscape 6, Internet Explorer 5 was out (1998) and it pretty much signalled the end of Netscape. By version 5.5 in 2000, I too was using Microsoft Internet Explorer.

To be fair to Netscape, Microsoft always had the advantage, not only were they a huge company, they accounted for around 90% of the operating system market and so included IE with the operating system. Few people felt the need to download a new browser when one was already included with the OS, particularly during the days of dial up.

By the end of 1998 IE had a 50% market share, Netscape had dipped below 50% for the first time. Netscape 6 arrived in 2000, I used it but unfortunately it was a bug ridden flop and so IE5.5 became my browser of choice, as it did for most people. By 2001 Netscape had just 10% of the market share and the browser war was over.

Personally I was glad to see the end of the browser war, not just because it meant that I had just one browser to choose from but because it made website design easier. During the browser wars, website design became a nightmare. Netscape and IE followed their own, mostly incompatible rules, meaning that it was extremely difficult to get a website to display properly in both browsers. This was of the course the days of the 'Best Viewed In' banners. Things were able to move on once again in website design, after the several years of stagnation during the browser wars.

I did download Netscape 7 in 2002 and even Netscape 9 in 2007, but just for nostalgia really. They were unimpressive and so seldom used. By then I had been using Mozilla Firefox for 3 years as my primary browser. With Firefox, Mozilla had done what Netscape had failed to do since the mid nineties, produce a ground breaking and advanced browser, which revitalised the browser market. At the time of my switch to Firefox, Netscape accounted for less than 1% of the browser market and to all intents and purposes, was dead in the water.

Whilst I agree that perhaps the end of Netscape is long overdue, it is sad that the only browser that truly matched IE, is no longer with us. Although a far better browser, Firefox only accounts for about 18% of the browser market share, and will take years to chip away at Internet Explorer's huge lead.



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