In browser fight, Microsoft's silver lining grows

The versions of IE that Microsoft cares about are increasing in use, though not enough to outpace falling use of older browsers. Also: Chrome and Safari are still on the rise.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
Microsoft's IE continues to lose share of the browser market to Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari, but the losses come from older versions of IE.
IE continues to lose share of the browser market to Chrome and Safari, but the losses come from older versions. Data from Net Applications; chart by Stephen Shankland/CNET

When Microsoft starts pointing to statistics that don't make it look so great, you can expect the company has a strong turnaround plan in place. Today's example: its share of browser usage.

Microsoft, while still the top browser maker, saw Internet Explorer slide as a fraction of worldwide usage from 57.1 percent in December 2010 to 56 percent in January, according to statistics from analytics firm Net Applications released today. That decline continues a years-long trend for the company, which first lost share to Mozilla's Firefox but now is losing it primarily to Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari.

Specifically, from December to January, Mozilla stayed flat at 22.8 percent, Chrome rose from 10 percent to 10.7, Safari rose from 5.9 percent to 6.3 percent, and Opera rose from 2.2 percent to 2.3 percent.

But there's an important detail hidden in the statistics--namely, the makeup of the different versions of IE. Microsoft is actively trying to discourage use of decade-old IE6, which is the bane of Web developers who want to use modern programming features, and to encourage adoption of IE8 and forthcoming IE9.

With that view, Microsoft has got more to show for itself. Here's how Roger Capriotti, director of Internet Explorer product marketing, put it in a blog post today:

Internet Explorer 6...continued its decline, with a 1.77 [percentage point] drop reaching 12.03 percent in January worldwide. IE6 has dropped 3.9 [percentage points] over the last three months (an average of 1.3 [percentage point] drop per month) and 9.31 percent from a year ago. During that same time, IE8 has grown 9.15 [percentage points] since January 2010. This trend is even more accelerated in the commercial segment. I blogged last year that [among commercial users] IE6 usage share was already at 10.3 percent, and IE8 at 34.1 percent last November.

So Microsoft has some trends in its favor--thus, the earlier point about Microsoft's willingness to spotlight statistics that don't look great at first glance.

Here's an earlier example. With IE9, which embraces a host of new Web standards and emphasizes hardware-accelerated performance, Microsoft is eager to have a cutting-edge browser. In IE9's infancy, Microsoft was willing to point out how poorly it fared on the Acid3 test of various browser features, but the browser's score has steadily improved with each new version.

By the way, IE9 accounted for 0.5 percent of browser usage in January, up only a smidgen from December. Expect that to change, though. It's still in beta testing, but expect a release candidate soon--likely February 10, judging by an invitation to a Microsoft IE event.

Of course, Chrome and Safari are growing, too, but without much of the prior-version cannibalization. Another qualifier: even usage statistics that remain flat in percentage terms represent significant growth in absolute terms, since the overall number of browser users are increasing.

Modern browsers are critical to a widespread trend on the Net: the development of increasingly sophisticated Web applications. People are spending ever more time on sites such as Google Docs or Facebook, so the higher performance and elaborate user interfaces enabled by modern browsers play a starring role in people's satisfaction with the Web.