2016 sees Internet Explorer usage collapse, Chrome surge

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At the start of 2016, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was still the most commonly used browser on the Web; it finished 2015 being used by about 46 percent of Web users, with 32 percent preferring Chrome, and 12 percent using Firefox. But Explorer’s days have been numbered ever since Microsoft essentially ended its development. While the venerable browser is still supported and still gets security updates, its features and standard support have been frozen since 2015. Instead, Microsoft shifted active development to Edge, its new browser. While Edge is faster, more secure, and boasts much better support for Web standards, it’s only available for Windows 10, which greatly limits its audience.

(All figures taken from Net Market Share unless otherwise noted.)

The landscape looked very different at the end of 2016. Chrome surged to command 56 percent of the market, while Internet Explorer plummeted to just under 21 percent. Edge isn’t being completely ignored by Web users—it started the year on 2.8 percent and finished on 5.3 percent—but it seems to be underperforming its predecessor. At the start of 2016, Windows 10 was used by 10 percent of Web users. By the end of 2016, this figure reached 24 percent—a solid performance for a new Microsoft operating system that was no doubt buoyed by the free upgrade offer for Windows 7 and Windows 8 users. Among gamers, Edge is performing better: according to the Steam hardware survey, Windows 10 just passed 50 percent of Steam users at the end of the year. That growth came at the expense of older Windows versions; Windows 7 dropped from 56 to 48 percent, Windows XP from 11 to 9 percent, and Windows 8.1 from 10 to 7 percent.

These numbers mean that only 22 percent of Windows 10 users are opting for Edge. Assuming that Internet Explorer users are mostly on older versions of Windows (technically, Windows 10 users could use Internet Explorer too, though it’s strongly discouraged and likely to be rare), 32 percent of pre-Windows 10 users are sticking with Internet Explorer. This suggests that either Windows 10 users don’t regard Edge as a suitable replacement for Internet Explorer or that early adopters are less interested in the operating system’s default browser.

Edge, for its part, took a big step forward in 2016: the Windows 10 Anniversary Update added extension support that makes Microsoft’s browser broadly compatible with the HTML-and-JavaScript extensions supported by Chrome and Firefox. Nonetheless, Microsoft’s browser still feels barebones, and its competitors are still better at things like managing tabs and passwords. And, in my own experience, Edge suffers from some odd stability issues.

Firefox ended the year in much the same place as it started it, at a hair over 12 percent. That’s a stronger performance than it appears, as by August the browser’s market share had fallen below 8 percent. Over the last four months of the year, all those losses were made up. After many years of development, Firefox is finally starting to get the kinds of security and stability features that other browsers have enjoyed for as much as a decade. Specifically, the browser now runs its rendering engine in a separate process, meaning that a crashing Web page doesn’t take down the entire browser. Firefox still has a way to go before it truly rivals Chrome, Edge, and Safari—it can’t yet create multiple rendering engine processes, so if one tab crashes they all need to be reloaded—but that goal is now in sight.

The situation for another venerable browser looks less happy. Opera’s market share throughout the year hovered at just over 1 percent. Opera Software, the company that developed the browser, functionally split in November. One half of the company, Opera ASA, remains a publicly traded Norwegian firm; it runs ad operations, app and game development, the Opera TV storefront and app platform, the Skyfire video optimization and monetization service, and the SurfEasy VPN service. The other half, Opera AS, develops the namesake browser, and this company was sold to a Chinese consortium for about $600 million. This sale saw the Opera brand and logo move to Chinese ownership.

Immediately upon completing the sale, the new owners laid off 85 staff, leaving the company with fewer than 400 employees. Still more resigned after the change in ownership. The browser is facing significant revenue pressure, with its traditional sources of income—bundling agreements with telecoms operators and licensing its browser tech for various embedded platforms—drying up, leaving it funded solely by its users. With such low market share, that’s a tricky position to be in.

In the view of many long-time Opera fans, Opera hasn’t been the browser that they know and love since 2013, when the browser dropped its own rendering engine and started using Blink, the WebKit-derived engine that Google uses in Chrome. With this switch came a reduction in the configurability and customization that endeared the browser to a certain kind of Internet user. A new browser created by some former Opera staff is striving to fill that gap. Vivaldi saw its version 1 release in 2016, and while it, too, is built using Blink, its entire interface is built using JavaScript, HTML, Node.js, and related technology. This makes the interface much easier to modify.

Now at version 1.7, Vivaldi is aiming at the “power user” who wants something that can be tailored to their specific needs. Still, the browser has yet to make a dent in the market share numbers.

A second new player from another long-time participant in the browser space also went public in 2016. The Brave browser was launched by Brendan Eich, co-founder of Mozilla and inventor of JavaScript. Brave’s novelty isn’t power-user customization, but rather integrated ad blocking combined with a micropayment system. Brave replaces ads on ad-funded sites with its own advertising. Revenue from that advertising is split between the sites having their ads blocked, Brave, the ad networks, and Brave’s users. The users can use these kickbacks to donate to publishers of their choosing. They can also make contributions directly through the browser.

Again, Brave hasn’t attracted much usage. A year ago, Eich said it needs to hit around 7 million users to prove its model works. As with Vivaldi, Brave has yet to make an appearance in the market share numbers.

Looking into 2017, Edge is going to continue to pick up features and become a more rounded option, while Firefox is going to round out its multiprocess implementation to give it much needed parity. Still, it’s hard to see how either browser is going to make inroads into Chrome’s share. Chrome currently offers the best mix of features, security, and reliability. Combined with Google’s continued promotional power—visit Google.com in other browsers and you’ll still be asked if you want to try Chrome—it’s a challenge for the others to win new users. And the continued migration to Windows 10 is only going to speed Internet Explorer’s decline.

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