Firefox growth stagnates; Chrome attacks

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Internet Explorer keeps declining, and Mozilla needs to keep a watch on the Google at its back.

Net Applications and StatCounter have released their browser market share estimates for May and they will surely cause a discussion relative to the accuracy of the numbers. Once more, however, both agree that Firefox shows no growth, while Chrome user share appears to be on the up. The runner up in the market growth category in May is - Opera. Mozilla may have a growing problem with Firefox and is under increasing pressure to deliver a fantastic Firefox 4.0.

It is amazing to see how Firefox’ growth has stalled in a way that could not have been predicted two years ago when Mozilla broke growth records every month. Firefox lost 0.24 points in May and landed at 24.35%, according to Net Applications. It was the eighth consecutive month in which Firefox has posted a market share within the 24% range. StatCounter usually sees Firefox’ share higher but also noticed a drop in usage in May, from 31.64% to 31.05%. Since August 2009, Firefox’s share has been within 1.15 points, according to StatCounter. It is apparent that Mozilla has a problem. It can’t grow its market share any more, but it is not really dropping either, which may make a decision - what to change and what not to change - in Firefox 4.0 particularly difficult. We will revisit Firefox’ issues later in the article.

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) continued to decline, by 0.26 points to 59.69% in NetApplications’ estimates. StatCounter believes IE has increased its share from 52.77% to 53.46%. Interestingly enough, the number twisters at Microsoft quoted NetApplications’ estimates to highlight that IE has actually slowed Chrome’s growth.  According to data sets that are not public, the U.S. share of IE climbed by 0.76 points to 63.27% last month. Chrome fell 0.45 points and Firefox dropped 0.24 points, with shares of 4.53% and 20.38%, respectively. It is a nice example how you can use a certain portion of statistics to your advantage.

On a global basis, Microsoft is making some progress phasing out its old IE6. The browser gave up 0.6 points and ended the month at 18.07%, while IE7 dropped by 0.49 points. IE8 gained 0.99 points, which made it the fastest growing individual browser version, but IE8 was not able to compensate for the loss of IE6 and IE7, which resulted in an overall market share loss for IE, according to Net Applications. IE6, IE7 and IE8 account for 99.82% of IE’s total share, if we believe the Internet analysis firm.

It is interesting to note that IE8 in fact has been the fastest growing browser version for several months, which is, however, not surprising and based on the fact that IE has the largest user base and the transition to IE8 has been going on for more than a year now, while other browser developers usually transition more than 80% of their user base within two to four months (and post the strongest individual browser market share gains during those months as a result.)

Chrome has lost some traction in May, despite the hype that was created last month. Chrome gained just 0.32 points or 4.75% to 7.05%, a new record share for the browser. Its growth rate was the slowest since August 2009 in absolute numbers and its slowest growth since February 2009 in a percentage view. It is too early to judge whether Chrome’s growth has hit a speed bump as May was the first month of the beginning phases of the switchover from version 4 to version 5. Chrome growth has traditionally slowed during such a transition period in the past.

However, the slowdown was substantial as the browser’s growth was only half of what it was in the prior month. StatCounter also noticed a slowdown, albeit on a much higher level as the company lists Chrome with more than 8% market share.

May was the first month when Chrome 6 showed up. It is the sixth version of Chrome to be introduced to the market over a period of 12 months. Chrome 6 is only available as a developer version under the Chromium brand at this time, but captured a market share of 0.14% already, which is the same share as Chrome 3. We expect Google to almost entirely transition from Chrome 4 to Chrome 5 within the next 30 days.

If there was a winner in a relatively eventless May, it clearly was Opera. The browser gained 5.65% or 0.13 points to 2.43%, a record for the browser in our charts. StatCounter saw Opera’s share slightly decline to 1.87% in May. Opera’s future success, however may not be so much in the desktop space, but in mobile applications such as smartphones. According to StatCounter (NetApplications does not provide public market share estimates for mobile browsers), Opera Mini holds 26.36% of the mobile market, followed by the iPhone with 18.99%. Both browsers lost market share in May. Nokia is third and somewhat stable at about 15%, but Blackberry emerges as a strong contender with clear growth that has catapulted the browser to 14.19%. Apple’s iPod touch is fifth with 9.28%.

Is Safari still around? Yes, it is. Safari is not moving much, though. It’s share is at 4.77%, up 0.05 points from April, according to Net Applications. There is not much happening at Apple these days.

Microsoft’s problem with IE6 has been described quite a bit lately, as well as the company’s desperate attempts to kill the browser. Microsoft’s issue is that many corporations use IE6 as the certified browser for many business critical applications and actually like the browser as it cannot render many modern social networking applications correctly – creating an effective barrier between such “distractions” and their employees.

Where IE6 gets very interesting is StatCounter’s and NetApplications’ market share estimates for the browser.  StatCounter saw IE6 below 8% early Tuesday, but corrected that number to 10.1% later in the day, which is up from 9.75% in April. Net Applications believes IE6 is still at 17.13%, down from 17.58% in April. At 17.13%, IE6 is still the world’s second most popular browser, followed by Firefox 3.6 with 15.69% and IE7 with 12.59%.

If you think about it, it is quite amazing to see a browser that is nearly a decade old to be still at that market share and an estimated installed base of more than 150 million active users worldwide. Despite the vastly different estimates, it is clearly that IE6 is not going anywhere in this year, no matter how hard Microsoft tries.

The company currently trashes IE6 by stating that it is an insecure browser and you really should upgrade. But seriously, does Microsoft think it is pure laziness that those IE6 users have not upgraded yet? Are those users on a mission to sabotage themselves and simply refuse to upgrade? Or could it be that there are corporate users who simply cannot upgrade on the one side and there are consumers who may not even be aware that there are new browser versions available or are simply uncomfortable with the thought of upgrading their browser? Let’s be realistic: For an inexperienced user, it really does not matter which browser runs on their PC as long as it works. Microsoft may be stuck with those users until they buy a new PC with a new browser version on it.

I hate to say it, but it is a homemade dilemma that was created in a time when Microsoft thought there will never be another browser than IE and IE6 would be good enough for a very long time. Today’s automated updated update features largely avoid such problems.

Mozilla’s Firefox is in an awkward position these days. No matter what Mozilla does, Firefox is simply not moving. Whether StatCounter’s numbers or NetApplications’ numbers are closer to the truth, both companies agree  that Firefox has not made significant gains or suffered substantial losses over the past 9 months when it crossed the 24% mark for the first time in NetApplications’ charts. The changes every month are negligible and may be within a reasonable margin of error.

The chart itself indicates that Mozilla has a very loyal user base that simply sticks with Firefox no matter what. However, quite the opposite may be the case.

A source within Mozilla told us that there is actually quite some movement going on and there is a substantial number of new users that are flocking to Mozilla every month. But if there is a wave of new users coming to Firefox every month, why do we not see those gains on a global basis?

The reason may be based on regional trends that are equalized globally. Or, what seems to be more likely is a situation in which Firefox is already caught in a dynamic that has been created by IE and Chrome and that cannot be controlled by Mozilla anymore.

Apparently, Mozilla is internally considering a scenario in which Firefox is acquiring users from Internet Explorer, but is losing users to Chrome.  We previously described a scenario in which Firefox may simply not be strong enough to withstand a battle between Microsoft and Google. Firefox may actually now be losing share to Chrome for the very same reason why it was able to quickly gain share from IE: When it was young, fresh and much more nimble, it offered a clear contrast to IE. But Firefox has become more and more bloated with recent updates, especially with the 3.5x generation. Chrome is the young and fresh browser now and could be effectively taking over the role Firefox had a few years ago.

If that assumption is correct, then Firefox may be currently gaining users from IE, but losing just as many to other browsers, especially Chrome. This scenario seems possible as both Chrome and Firefox are more “weekend browsers” than “weekday browsers” as their market share climbs up to two points on weekends, according to non-public data provided by Net Applications. Both browsers share the characteristic that they appeal primarily to consumers. And we know that consumers will switch much more easily to a new browser than businesses do.

Sources within Mozilla indicated to us that this dynamic between IE-Firefox-Chrome was one of the key reasons why Mozilla has decided to add a Chrome look and feel to the upcoming Firefox 4.0, which we are promised to see as a beta on June 24. Mozilla hopes that a Chrome appeal in Firefox will create the perception of a much leaner and much more nimble browser than version 3.5.x/3.6 and will stop the bleeding to Chrome.

Mozilla is apparently doing just fine gaining users from IE, but it needs to find a way to defend itself against Chrome. If it cannot find a solution, then Chrome may have begun to effectively drown Firefox as there is more than likely a limit to how many users Firefox can attract from Microsoft’s user base.

In that view, Firefox 4.0 is a much more critical product to Mozilla than has been communicated so far. Firefox 3.6.4 is unlikely to be able to compete with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9. Microsoft already considers 3.6.4 a done deal in its product goals for IE9 performance. Firefox 4.0 needs to represent a massive improvement over the 3.5/3.6 generation of Firefox. An evolutionary release may not be able to be compelling enough in a battle against IE9. Mozilla can’t afford to be attacked on two fronts and will not be able to fight IE and Chrome at the same time.

Ultimately, Mozilla has to consider a scenario in which both IE and Chrome will go after its market share and 25% is nothing to sneeze at. We know that Google is not in this race for second place and neither is Microsoft. Firefox 4.0 has to be a great browser that brings back the innovative spirit of version 1 and 2. On June 24, we will get a first idea how good Firefox 4 will be. I wonder: Will Mozilla find its old strength and surprise us with a truly great Firefox?