It's the middle of 2012 and we haven't spoken about web browsers for a while, so let's take another look at how the main competitors are getting on.

It's fair to say that the big four these days are Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome, and Mozilla's Firefox. Given this, let's now look at how each shapes up against its rivals...

Market share

Using a random sample of the sites that we host at NetXtra, we can extract some numbers to see how each browser fares in terms of market share. The numbers below show the percentage of people using each browser visiting each of the websites currently hosted by us...

Internet Explorer: 34% to 60%

Chrome: 12% to 23%

Safari: 5% to 25%

Firefox: 10% to 19%

Whilst Explorer generally comes out on top, it's interesting to note how varied the numbers are from site to site. In some cases Internet Explorer dominates, whilst in others the picture is far more balanced, with each main browser getting a relatively equal share.

Clearly, and rather interestingly, different audience types are using different browsers. We will no doubt investigate this further in a future article.

Internet Explorer

Explorer has always been an interesting beast. For many years it has been the most popular (by market share) of all the browsers. But during this time it has also generally been the most hated by web developers. Older versions (especially v6) were notorious for the numerous bugs and oddities they contained, leading to countless extra hours of development from time to time!

When Explorer was dominant (with up to 90% market share according to some people) Microsoft rather rested on its laurels and slowed the development of the browser. With the raise in popularity of browsers such as Chrome, this all changed and Microsoft ramped up the pace of development again. Now at v9, and with v10 just around the corner, Explorer is a far better behaved browser and now much less despised by web developers.

Looking at Explorer's numbers in more detail, we can see how quickly users are adopting the latest version…

Explorer v9: 8 - 20%

Explorer v8: 14 - 26%

Explorer v7: 3 - 23%

Explorer v6: 1 - 4%

These numbers show that the take up of new versions is relatively slow, with a small but not insignificant number of users still holding out on v6. This can cause problems for developers as it complicates the implementation of newer web technologies. If a significant part of a site's audience are going to be using an old browser that doesn't support some new whizzy feature, then more effort is needed to ensure that there are sensible workarounds in place.

This problem is magnified by the pace of change with the other browser vendors. HTML5 and related technologies are currently being heavily pushed by all of the vendors and it seems like practically every week some hot new feature is being promoted by one of them. Developer's drool over all of the clever things they will be able to do - only to then realise that a large chunk of their audience are still using old browsers!

Safari

Apple entered the browser wars when they extended the open source KHTML browser rendering engine to create "webkit" - the engine used by their Safari browser. Whilst this has never quite managed to catch up with Internet Explorer, it is very popular on Apple's own devices and now holds its own in the market share battle.

Apple have aggressively developed Safari (and webkit) to be at the forefront of modern web technologies - in many cases shaping those technologies and setting the standards others have then adopted.

The webkit rendering engine is particularly popular on mobile devices. Apple's own iOS devices (iPhone, iPod, iPad) use it to power the mobile version of Safari. Likewise, Google Android powered devices also use a webkit based browser. With Microsoft struggling to gain traction on mobile devices, this has left webkit as top dog of mobile.

Chrome

Google entered the fray by releasing their own browser - also based on Apple's webkit engine. Based on Google's dominance in web search, they quickly managed to gain a large slice of the market and they now vie with Internet Explorer for the top position.

Like Apple, Google have aggressively pushed new web technology forwards, with the intention of allowing full desktop-alike applications to run directly in the browser.

Chrome has a very aggressive update policy. Rather than relying on users to upgrade Chrome manually, the browser instead automatically updates itself, meaning that you are always running on the latest version. Whilst there are some critics to this approach, it does mean that they avoid the issues Microsoft has with Internet Explorer v6 - which to this day, still hangs around causing problems.

Firefox

Firefox continues to chug along, doing things in its own particular way. The Mozilla Foundation that controls Firefox, supports licence free technologies, aiming to be the open alternative to the browsers offered by the large commercial corporations. It maintains a loyal following, but, with the emergence of Google's Chrome, has possibly dented its market share somewhat.

Firefox has recently adopted a similar approach to Chrome in providing automatic updates and de-emphasising the version number of the browser - again with the intention of speeding up the development process and ensuring users are always using the latest version.

So...

All of the major browser vendors are heavily invested into the technologies that go under the banner of HTML5. Gone are the days where Microsoft ruled the waves with Internet Explorer, and innovation was all but dead. Each vendor has a decent chunk of the market and is trying to out develop the others.

It's an exciting time to be involved with web development. There are constantly new goodies for developers to play with. The functionality offered by modern web browsers is nearing the point where browser-based applications are indistinguishable from normal 'desktop' applications. In fact, in many cases this has already happened. One by one traditional applications, like word processing, presentation creation, picture editing, and more, are moving online into the [cough] cloud.

The problem now is keeping up with it all and pushing to ensure that the vendors implement new features in the same way. As developers, we used to complain about how browsers sized various elements differently on a page. Now we complain that they support different video codecs or implement real time communication sockets differently.

It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same!