The release of Internet Explorer 4.0 has pushed Microsoft closer to Netscape Communications in the Web browser market, according to a study released today, but Netscape is questioning the validity of the study's methodology.
The survey, from market research firm Dataquest, says Netscape is still the leader in the Web browser category with a market share of 57.6 percent in the third quarter of 1997, but that Microsoft's share has roughly doubled in nine months to 39.4 percent. At that rate, Microsoft will catch up to its rival by mid-1998, the study projected.
Netscape countered that the study is flawed.
"We feel their technique in using a single search engine skews the data," said Netscape spokeswoman Maggie Young.
The Dataquest survey is based on information reflecting a seven-day period at the end of each quarter using about 60 million daily query points in data supplied by Digital Equipment's Alta Vista search engine.
Netscape's Young pointed out that Netscape's Web site, one of the most heavily trafficked on the Web, links to several search engines, but Alta Vista is not one of them. She then contested the survey's numbers, citing other studies that show the company's share remains around 70 percent.
Browser market shares vary according to the market segments. For example, Netscape executives estimated in September that the company's share in corporations was 70 percent but conceded that the percentage of home users was lower. Yet another study released by Zona Research just before the launch of IE 4.0 put the corporate share at 62 percent for Netscape, 36 percent for Microsoft.
Microsoft's share of the market was just 20 percent at the end of the fourth quarter of 1996, when Netscape held 73 percent of the browser business, according to Dataquest.
"If Microsoft's growth in browser share continues, Dataquest projects Internet Explorer to reach parity with Netscape Navigator as early as the second quarter of 1998," said Kathryn Hale, principal analyst for Dataquest's Internet Strategies Worldwide program.
Hale noted that the figures were taken at the end of September when IE 4.0 had just begun shipping. "What will be really interesting is next quarter's data," she said.
The figures have been closely scrutinized by the industry, although browsers are quickly becoming a commodity given away as part of broader software package sales.
Three years ago Netscape pioneered the commercial market for Web browsers. But Microsoft has fought back, redirecting its efforts toward the Internet, improving Internet Explorer, and pledging to offer it for free while bundling it with the Windows operating system used on nine out of ten new PCs.
Microsoft's aggressive promotion of its own Internet software has sparked an intense investigation by the Justice Department, which last month charged Microsoft with breaching the conditions of a 1995 court order by forcing PC manufacturers to install the browser on the desktop of new computers.
Microsoft has dismissed the government's latest charges as lacking merit and has repeatedly denied any illegal behavior. Last week the company filed a response to the government's case.
Reuters contributed to this report.