Analysis – February turned out to be the month of the beta browsers, in a more significant way than we have seen in any other month before. While overall market shares remained relatively stable for the top 5 of browser developers, there were major shifts in beta browser market share. Microsoft saw strong gains for Internet Explorer 8 and Apple hit a home run with Safari 4. Mozilla does not promote its Firefox 3.1 and trails its rivals in beta browser adoption, but has the strongest adoption rate of its most current stable browser.
If February is any indication, then Mozilla’s wild ride may be over for now. Market share data released by Net Applications shows that Firefox still gained share in February, albeit at a much slower pace than in recent months. Internet Explorer still lost, but only marginally and Apple took a big hit in average browser share in February. According to the data, Internet Explorer dropped from 68.18% to 68.17%, Firefox gained from 21.75% to 21.96% and Safari dropped from 7.70% to 7.42%.
Google’s Chrome climbed from 1.13% to 1.16% and Opera gained 0.02 points from 0.68% to 0.70%. Eagle-eyed readers may notice that those numbers deviate quite a bit from the actual February average based on Net Applications’ daily numbers (IE: 67.26%; Firefox: 21.82%; Safari: 8.15%; Chrome: 1.15%; Opera: 0.71%), which is due to the correction of errors that may occur in daily reporting, the market research firm said.
Compared to previous months, there are some interesting trends that are revealed especially when we look at the graphs: It is apparent that Microsoft was able to slow the decline of market shares, the reasons of which I will explain a bit further down. Firefox shows a declining trend for the first time in several months. IE holds about 65% on days during the week and about 69% on weekends. Mozilla was able to account for close to 24% of market share on weekends at the end of January and at the beginning of February and is now in the 22-23% range. Firefox market share during the week remains unchanged at about 21.5%.
Safari’s market share loss cannot be explained from the daily data provided by Net Applications as the browser showed continued gains over the entire month. In fact, the official beta release of Safari 4 was the second strongest beta release we can recall, lifting Safari’s market share above 10% for the first time. On February 28, Safari is listed with a 10.91% share, which is 1.88 points above Safari’s share on the same day in the previous week (February 21; 9.03%) and a full point above Safari's previous market share record (February 1; 9.90%). This gain is about in line with the trend of Safari share gains and the impact of the Safari 4 beta release.
Read on the next page: Battle of the beta browsers - 11 million Safari downloads
Battle of the beta browsers: 11 million Safari 4 downloads in four days?
Leveraging beta software to attract early interest of consumers and outmaneuver rivals is a traditional Microsoft strategy. Internet Explorer 4 Beta, one of the most elaborate beta release events in software history, proved to be very successful and was essential to kill Netscape’s Navigator, the dominant browser in the mid-90s. This month we learned that beta releases are still beneficial, but it was Apple who took the lead this time.
Safari 4 beta jumped to 0.45% market share after one day, to 0.55% on day 3 and to 1.04% on day 4. Net Applications’ market share data indicates that 1% of market share points to roughly 10 million installed browsers. Our sources at Apple mentioned that such an estimate would not be far from reality, but we were told that the number of downloaded Safari 4 packages may actually be closer to 11 million. Not bad for four days. In comparison, it took Internet Explorer 8 Beta more than six months of active promotion to hit the 1% mark. Mozilla needed seven days to cross the 1% mark with Firefox 3, according to Net Applications.
Of course, there is Google, which needed only nine hours to get Chrome to 1% following its September 1, 2008 launch. However, Google is somewhere stuck at that mark since then. While it was able to recover from a decline to about 0.70%, Chrome currently hovers around 1.10% with the trend showing a slow decline again.
Mozilla has not jumped on the beta train yet and is treating beta browsers as test versions just for developers. And from what we can tell, there are still serious bugs in Firefox 3.1, despite the fact that it is a fantastic and very fast browser. However, without promotion, there isn’t any market adoption, which is why the market share of Firefox 3.1 is at just 0.1% today.
Read on the next page: Firefox users update their browsers, Internet Explorer users do not
Firefox users are the most up-to-date
Despite Safari 4’s traction, it is clear that beta browsers are not much more than a marketing tool. Looking at the adoption of the most recent versions of browsers, it may be much more interesting to predict a future trend of browser growth and the loyalty of users. And among the top 3, it is Firefox that leads this category.
89.45% of Firefox users are running Firefox 3.0x, while only 70.05% of Internet Explorer users work with Internet Explorer 7 and only 46.75% of Safari users run Safari 3.2. The number for Safari is distorted, due to faster major version number changes at Apple (Net Applications does not differentiate between different Firefox 3.0x versions, but does so for Safari 3.x versions).
While Apple is a special case in this comparison, Microsoft is not and it is somewhat interesting to note that after more than 28 months of availability, Internet Explorer 7 is still at a conversion rate of just 70%, while Mozilla is at almost 90% after almost 9 months. If you have read my browser analysis articles before, then you know that there is still a large portion of IE6 users, most of them in corporate environments, which account for about 18.6% browser market share at this time – or almost 28% of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer user base. It is a matter of time until these users and their corporations will switch browser versions or browsers.
If we try to make a prediction in Microsoft’s favor - if we exclude IE8 beta and assume that these users will become Internet Explorer users and also assume that current IE5 and IE4 users will switch to IE8, then there is at least 17% of the browser market share up for grabs, which translates into just about 25% of all Internet Explorer users Microsoft has at this time. There is no doubt that IE7’s slow adoption rate and the high usage rate puts Microsoft at risk losing more market share in the future. One of IE8’s major tasks will be to convince more users much faster to switch to the new version.
Microsoft is vulnerable on many fronts and the browser market may be one of the least apparent and most significant weak links at the same time. Microsoft will need a much more efficient upgrade strategy to keep as many of those 28% of corporate users, especially to successfully launch and support its web services and cloud computing products.