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Browser Tip:
The Growing Popularity of Alternative Browsers

by Larisa Thomason,
Senior Web Analyst,
NetMechanic, Inc.

  
September 2005
Vol. 8, No. 5
 • Promotion Tip
 • Browser Tip
 • CSS Tip
  

Are you hoping to use your Web site to access a worldwide market? Plenty of businesses do—from small cooperatives in Southeast Asia to rare book dealers to online music services.

Although you may already expect to encounter language and cultural differences, a more immediate problem is browser compatibility. Do you know how your Web site looks when viewed in Firefox or Opera? It's time to find out!

Explosive Growth In Europe

Thousands of new users log on every week in European countries. The table below contains European Union statistics on Internet growth and usage:

The complete report is available at the Internet World Web site. You can also view usage statistics for other parts of the world at this same site.

Overall Internet usage is just one growth area; European users are far more likely than their United States counterparts to embrace alternative browsers like Firefox and Opera.

Web analytics provider WebSideStory puts Firefox usage at over 22% in Germany. Usage statistics from Der Spiegel, Germany's largest news magazine, seem to agree. During April 2005, an analysis of the 276 million visitors to the Der Spiegel Web site showed these usage statistics:

  • Internet Explorer - 63.18%
  • Firefox - 30.18%

Dutch Web analytics firm, One Stat, places worldwide usage of Firefox at approximately 7.5%, with Explorer usage dropping below 90% for the first time in years.

Explorer Popularity Declining In United States Too

Even in the United States, where Explorer comes already installed on most computers, Firefox's popularity is rising rapidly—although more slowly than in Europe. How popular alternative browsers are depends on whom you ask and the methods they use to collect their numbers.

Browser usage statistics are particularly difficult to pin down because there are so many variables:

  • Population surveyed: Is the user population being tracked composed mainly of professional developers, corporate users, or consumer users?
  • Population size: Does the study track several hundred or several hundred thousand users?
  • Survey scope: Is this a worldwide study or restricted to a single country or geographic region?
  • Survey size: Does the study include traffic to a variety of Web sites or just a few?

For instance, the W3 Schools Web site reports steady growth of Firefox at Explorer's expense. During 2005, Firefox's share has grown from 19.3% in January to 25% in May. At the same time, Explorer's share fell by almost 4%, to 61.7%. However, these statistics are for a single Web site that attracts a certain type of visitor. As the site notes:

"W3Schools is a website for people with an interest for web technologies. These people are more interested in using alternative browsers than the average user."

Even so, larger, more comprehensive studies of US users do indicate that Explorer usage is declining. The same WebSideStory survey that reported dramatic growth of Firefox in Europe also reports growth in the United States, albeit slower.

During the five months between December 2004 and April 2005, Firefox usage rose from 4.06% to 6.75% and Explorer usage dropped to 88.86%. Explorer is still the dominant browser by far in the US market, but its rivals are quickly gaining ground.

Webmasters ignore these alternative browsers—particularly Firefox—at their own peril because their popularity is rising rapidly among many different segments of the online population.

Security Concerns And Cost Contribute To Alternates' Growth

Web analysts attribute the relatively rapid growth of alternative browsers to several factors:

  • An anti-Microsoft attitude among some users—particularly in Europe.
  • Most alternative browsers are free or have free versions and install easily on open-source and other non-Microsoft operating systems.
  • Alternative browsers generally have fewer security flaws than Explorer.

Security concerns are a major reason that many corporate and small business networks are switching to other browsers. Although alternates aren't bug free by any means, they have tended to be less vulnerable to hacker attacks and bugs.

In July 2004, CNN/Money published a count of estimated browser security faults since 1997:

  • Opera -v7.5 : 12
  • Netscape -v4 : 40
  • Mozilla : 25
  • IE : 200+ known

Note that this does show that non-Explorer browsers are neither flawless nor completely secure. However, because Explorer has been the dominant browser, it has been the main target. If you're a hacker looking for ways to get into a system and steal personal information, why waste time cracking a browser that has a 2-3% market share? Why not go for the 90+% share browser?

But an even more pressing concern for corporate users is that Explorer is tied so closely into the computer's operating system that a security flaw in the browser could put all data stored on the computer at risk. Because alternative browsers are standalone software that runs independent of operating system, security flaws are less dangerous overall.

More Testing Headaches!

What does all this swirl of facts and figures mean for your Web site? You'll have to do more testing and pay more careful attention to your coding. Opera, Netscape, and Firefox are all more standards-compliant than Explorer, so the good coding skills you've learned will finally be rewarded.

And yet, even the most standards-compliant browser has quirks. Opera can be particularly picky about some CSS techniques and Netscape has some issues with borders and margins. You'll never know about problems until you look at your pages on the maximum number of browsers, operating systems, and screen resolutions.

That's why we've updated our Browser Photo tool to reflect the changes taking place among Internet users. You can see actual screen shots of your page in 24 (up from the original 16) browsers, browser versions, operating system, and screen resolution combinations.

You'll know how your page looks in Opera 8.0 for Windows and Linux. Also, see your page in AOL 9.0, Mozilla, Netscape, Firefox, and Safari.

Browser Photo gets your Web site ready for a changing worldwide market. And a one-time usage is only $15. You can't afford not to use Browser Photo!



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