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Chrome could unseat Firefox as No. 2 browser

New statistics show Google's browser could well bump Firefox as the second-place PC browser. Android's browser is gunning for Opera Mobile's position.

Net Applications

Google's browsers edged closer to second place in both desktop and mobile markets, a gradual trend that helps Google's profitability and its long-term plans for the Web.

On personal computers, Chrome rose from 15.5 percent of global usage in August to 16.2 percent in September, according to Net Applications, whose Web-based analytics tools monitor usage. Chrome trails Internet Explorer, which dropped from 55.3 percent to 54.4 percent, and Firefox, which dipped from 22.6 percent to 22.5 percent. Safari rose from 4.6 percent to 5.0 percent, and Opera was flat at 1.7 percent.

On smartphones and tablets, Google's unbranded Android browser rose from 15.7 percent to 16.3 percent. There, the leaders are Apple's Safari, which rose from 53.0 percent to 54.7 percent, and Opera Mini, which dropped from 20.8 percent to 18.5 percent.

In September, mobile devices accounted for 6 percent of browsing traffic, compared to 93.7 percent for personal computers, Net Applications said.

Browsers play a very important supporting role in Google's business, and the company has been investing aggressively in Chrome technology and marketing. The browser is geared to improve online services such as search, video, and Google Apps, all of which generate revenue for the company.

"Chrome is Google's most underappreciated success story. The company has indicated that Chrome users typically conduct more Google searches than users of other browsers and are more loyal to Google search," said Macquarie Capital analyst Ben Schachter in a research note Friday. His take on the statistics puts Chrome in second place by mid-2012, depending on whose statistics are used.

Mozilla believes its independence from other agendas will serve it in good stead, though. In a statement, the organization said:

Firefox demonstrated just how important browsers are, but it's important to remember that the reasons for building Web browsers are significantly different from one company to the next. Mozilla is unique in that we build Firefox to provide a truly independent offering, focused solely on individual experience and the overall good of the Web. Firefox is holding its own in the face of increased competition, with 450 million users worldwide choosing a Web browser that answers only to them.

Chrome has an advantage for Google over Mozilla's Firefox: searches from Chrome are performed directly with Google technology. That means that Google doesn't have to split the revenue with partners such as Mozilla or that drive search traffic. With such deals, the search-ad revenue Google pays partners is called traffic acquisition costs, or TAC.

Net Applications

"Google is spending significantly to market Chrome to the public (including television and other traditional media)," Schacter said. "We believe that this marketing spend has better ROI [return on investment] than typical distribution/TAC deals."

Chrome also lets Google test and deploy technology it believes serves its goals for a responsive, interactive Web. Among those are its SPDY protocol for communications with Web pages, its WebM video technology, Native Client and faster JavaScript for more sophisticated Web applications, and, according to plans revealed in a leaked memo, the Dart programming language Google hopes will do better than JavaScript.

Net Applications isn't the only widely cited supplier of browser statistics; StatCounter also is popular. The two use different methods, though.

StatCounter's view of browser usage over the last year shows Chrome's rise.
StatCounter's view of browser usage over the last year shows Chrome's rise. StatCounter

Net Applications' NetMarketShare statistics measure unique users' activity, which about 160 million visits to a network of more than 40,000 Web sites, so multiple visits by a single person count only once. StatCounter measures browser visits, with more than 9 billion visits to a network of more than 3 million Web sites.

Thus, Net Applications puts the emphasis on people, while StatCounter gives greater weight to browsers that are used more often, regardless of who is using them. In addition, Net Applications adjusts its statistics according to the CIA's information on Internet traffic broken down by country. "For example, if our global data shows that Brazil represents 2 percnet of our traffic, and the CIA table shows Brazil to represent 4 percent of global Internet traffic, we will count each unique visitor from Brazil twice," Net Applications says.

Both organizations' statistics show the same overall trend, though: Chrome's rise at the expense of Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox. Note that those figures are in terms of percentages; because the overall market is increasing, a flat percentage still means growth in the absolute number of users.

One thorn in the side of Web developers the world over is Internet Explorer 6, which is slow and lacks support for many modern Web technology standards. Its usage is gradually diminishing, down to 8.82 percent by Net Applications' measurements.

Microsoft, though not necessarily to see IE's overall decline, enjoys watching the rise of IE9 and the demise of IE6.

"IE6 has now dropped to 9 percent usage share worldwide in September (and if you remove China's figures, IE6 only represents 3.5 percent usage share worldwide)," said Roger Capriotti, director of Internet Explorer marketing, in a blog post. "Poland also crossed an important threshold this month--their IE6 usage share dropped to less than one percent. Gratulacje!"

According to the Net Applications data published at Microsoft's IE6 countdown site, IE6 strongholds include China, where usage is 28.7 percent, and South Korea, where it's 11.9 percent. It's lowest in Finland, at 0.4 percent, and Norway, at 0.3 percent.

Mozilla has moved to a rapid-release cycle that means, as with Chrome, a new browser release every six weeks. Partly as a result, usage in September of different Firefox releases is scattered among multile versions: 11.4 percent for Firefox 6, 6.2 percent for Firefox 3.6, 1.6 percent for Firefox 5, 1.3 percent for Firefox 4.0, 0.6 percent for Firefox 3.0, 0.5 percent for Firefox 3.5, and 0.1 percent for Firefox 2.0.

Mozilla expects a significant shift to newer versions of Firefox once it starts suggesting to Firefox 3.6 users that they upgrade, though.

Updated 4:43 a.m. PT with background on Net Applications and StatCounter methodology and browser version data. Updated 11:14 p.m. PT with comment from Mozilla..