Top web browsers 2018: Being the default does little good

Did Microsoft’s own policies hasten the decline of its browsers?

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Top browsers, February 2018

Microsoft is less than two years away from becoming a browser afterthought, according to the newest data from analytics vendor Net Applications.

Data published Thursday by the California-based company showed that the user share of Internet Explorer (IE) stood at 13.5% for February. That was an impressive 1.7 percentage point increase from the month prior and the highest, by far, since Net Applications revamped its tallies by eliminating bot-made traffic from the data.

Even that increase was but a temporary reprieve from a depressing-to-Microsoft trend that has seen the browser shed an enormous amount of user share in the past several years. As recently as June 2015, before Microsoft launched Windows 10 and thus that OS's native browser, Edge, IE accounted for 54% of the world's browsers, and nearly 60% of those that ran on a Windows-powered personal computer.

Last month, IE's user share among all Windows-based PCs stood at 15.4%, meaning that fewer than one in every six Windows machines relied on IE to access the Internet.

Even worse for Microsoft, IE is on borrowed time. Already designated as a legacy browser in Windows 10, where it's been relegated by enterprises to rendering stagnant internal websites and can't-or-won't-be upgraded web apps, IE will be dropped from support on Windows 7 when that OS gets its retirement papers in January 2020. Users will still be able to run IE - and Windows 7 for that matter - after that month, but they will assume significant risk because neither the browser or the operating system will receive security updates.

Because IE accounted for more than three-fourths of the combined user share of both Microsoft browsers, and what with Edge's tenuous foothold on Windows 10, Microsoft faces a dramatic decline in its total user share when IE is put to pasture.

(Last month, Edge accounted for the browser of record on a record-low percentage of all Windows 10 machines - just 11.7% - which represented a nearly-two-percentage-point decline from the month before. In other words, Edge is a flop.)

By the time Microsoft retires Windows 7, and for effective purposes, IE as well, Windows 10 should have reached a user share (of all Windows) of around 63.6%, assuming its climb continues on the past year's trend line. If Edge hasn't, well, edged up as a share of all Windows 10 by that time - and all evidence is that it will not - then Microsoft's active browser share will be in the single digits, perhaps as low as 6%.

(By "active," Computerworld means still-supported browsers; there will undoubtedly be users who continue to run IE after Windows 7's retirement, sans security patches. And IE on Windows 8.1 will be a negligible contribution to user share, as that OS will have faded to under 5% by January 2020.)

As a comparison, Edge's predicted 6% in 2020 would be only slightly more than half the share that Mozilla's Firefox - another browser that has been, and is once again, on the ropes - now holds.

Other browsers' February results were mixed. Google's Chrome, while still the big dog, shed eight-tenths of a percentage point last month, falling to 60.6% and upending Computerworld's forecast that the browser would soon top the two-thirds mark. Firefox ran to stay in place, ending February with a user share of 10.9%, while Apple's Safari, always a single-digit browser on the desktop, picked up a tenth of a percentage point to reach 4.3%.

Apple, like Microsoft, has seen its primary browser lose share on its home turf. In February, approximately 44% of all Macs ran Safari as the main browser, down from a dominant 66% less than three years ago. Chrome has probably claimed the bulk of the Safari deserters, just as it has absorbed those Windows users who abandoned IE in the same period.

Net Applications calculates user share by detecting the browser agent strings of the applications people use to visit its clients' websites. It then tallies the various browsers, accounting for the size of each country's online population to better estimate share in regions where it lacks large numbers of analytics customers.

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