It's just one browser version during one particular week, and only one research firm is making the claim--but according to StatCounter, Google's Chrome 15 is the world's most popular browser.
In the last week of November, StatCounter says, 23.6 percent of the browsers tracked by its global system were Chrome 15. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 accounted for 23.5 percent.
Add up all versions of IE and Chrome and you still get a different story: IE is the most popular browser overall, well ahead of Chrome. StatCounter's numbers still show all versions of IE taking a total of 40.09 percent of the market, vs. 26.31 percent for all versions of Chrome. Firefox is at 25.07 percent, Apple's Safari is at 5.86 percent, and Opera gets 1.91 percent.
Chrome 15's victory isn't hugely meaningful. Google's built-in updating system quietly but insistently auto-updates users to new versions, reducing the number of people who are running old editions of the browser. Microsoft, by contrast, is less pushy. That helps explain why a meaningful number of folks still run the ancient, obsolete, insecure mess known as Internet Explorer 6.
In January, Microsoft plans to use Windows Update's Auto Updates to upgrade recalcitrant Windows users to newer versions of Internet Explorer--IE 8 for Windows XP, and IE 9 for Windows Vista and 7. Given Chrome 15's extremely narrow victory over IE 8 and the massive number of Windows XP PCs in the world, IE 8 presumably has a decent chance at snatching its crown back next month.
The real history-making moment would come if Chrome--or any non-Microsoft browser--overtook IE to become the world's most popular browser, period. (The numbers reported by StatCounter and its rivals vary enough that I wouldn't believe it had happened until every major stats service agreed.)
The last market-leading browser that wasn't IE was Netscape Navigator. When its share crumbled in the 1990s, Internet Explorer gained a monopoly on the market that looked like it would probably be permanent.
By coming pre-installed on Windows, Internet Explorer still gets a huge head start over every other browser on the planet: It's remarkable that the race is as close as it is. I wouldn't reject the possibility of Chrome eventually overtaking IE, though, particularly given how rapidly it's improving and how aggressively Google markets it.
Of course, a few years ago I thought that Firefox also had a shot at surpassing IE . Back in the days when Internet Explorer 6 was the current version of IE, and commanded more than 90 percent of the market, Firefox was downright dazzling. Simply by being wonderful, it quickly racked up millions of users--and forever disproved the depressing conventional wisdom that it was impossible to compete with Windows' default browser.
When Google unveiled Chrome a little over three years ago, Firefox probably lost its chance at taking the top slot. All of a sudden, Chrome was the fresh, innovative alternative browser--and recently, Firefox's share has flatlined, then dipped.
If open-source Firefox had managed to overtake IE, it would have been one of the great stories in tech history: A bunch of volunteer geeks banding together to beat the world's biggest software company. If Chrome takes the lead, it'll be one huge company beating another huge company. For me, at least, the emotional impact wouldn't be the same.
And in a strange way, Microsoft is also a scrappy upstart when it comes to browsers. IE 9, the current version, is downright good, and admirably progressive when it comes to new technologies and standards. (Microsoft does its best work when its products have meaningful competition. Weird, huh?)
So I'm not rooting for any particular browser, and won't take it badly if IE remains the most popular one for years to come. But boy, am I glad that the browser wars--which some once thought were over--show no signs of ending anytime soon.