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Drip bag of unsavvy users won't help IE get healthy

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Open ... and Shut Despite years of pressure from government antitrust actions and open-source upstarts like Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) browser still commands more than 50 per cent of the global desktop browser market. While Microsoft remains an obvious choice for many consumers, there's some indication that Microsoft's venerable browser may be in trouble with a potentially more important demographic: developers.

For years IE was in free fall as Chrome gained market share due to its superior speed, security, and ease of use (including managing extensions). By late 2011, it wasn't surprising that some were writing eulogies for IE as it shed 6 per cent market share in just three months while Chrome soared. In fact, by some estimates, Chrome actually surpassed IE's market share in early 2012.

Since that time, Microsoft has managed to stabilise IE's market share with users, adding back two percentage points since December 2011:

What Microsoft hasn't been able to do, however, is head off its decline with developers.

This thought struck me when reading Jason Perlow's review of the Socialfixer browser extension. In describing how to install Socialfixer, Perlow writes:

Go to the Socialfixer website and install it on your browser – they support Google Chrome, Firefox and Apple Safari. Unfortunately at this time Internet Explorer isn't supported, but they're working on it.

Just an isolated application that will eventually support IE, or a sign of bad things to come for Microsoft's browser?

I suspect it's the latter. First of all, the trend among web developers is clearly away from IE and toward open-source browsers. IE adoption is scraping a mere 16.3 per cent with the web developer crowd that w3schools.com tracks. Firefox (33.7 per cent) and Chrome (42.9 per cent) fare much better.

IE's chances aren't helped much by its user base, which tends to be less technical and hence less likely to update its browser. Microsoft has struggled for years to get its users off IE6 and now IE7. Meanwhile, big websites like Facebook are dropping support for Microsoft's older browsers. And it's not just websites: fundamental web technologies like jQuery are increasingly dropping support for older Microsoft browsers, including (in jQuery's case) IE8.

My hunch is that when users discover their favourite sites don't work well in IE6 or IE7, instead of upgrading to IE9 they will follow the advice of their search engine and download Chrome.

This is leading developers like 4ormat to forego IE development altogether, preferring instead to focus on Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. 4ormat, in fact, claims it saved $100,000 by dropping IE support.

All of which must be worrying for Microsoft. The blessing for Microsoft is that many of its users unthinkingly use their Windows machine's default browser: IE. Unfortunately, this is also Microsoft's curse. That same crowd that can't (initially) be bothered to install a different browser is the same crowd that won't upgrade it... until their favourite websites stop working as their browser grows old and crufty, and they're tempted away by Google or a neighbor to try Chrome or Firefox (or they get a Mac and fall into another default browser, Safari).

Microsoft's IE isn't dead yet. The company seems to have stabilised the browser's market share. But unless the company can renew developers enthusiasm for the little blue e, expect the bottom to fall out of Internet Explorer's market share. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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