Sunny with a Chance of Standards

Opinion: Internet Explorer's falling market share is good news for the future of Web design.

Making predictions is a tough business, and youre just as likely to be wrong as you are to be right. But, as a columnist, sometimes I just have to go out on a limb.

About a year ago, for example, I wrote a column about the mistakes I thought Microsoft was making with the Internet Explorer browser—namely, limiting all new versions to Windows XP SP2 and the forthcoming Vista (then called "Longhorn").

By making this decision, I said at the time, Microsoft was abandoning the majority of Windows users—users who are still on older versions of the operating system—leaving them with an insecure IE 6.0 that is very much showing its age.

I thought that this decision, coupled with the growing popularity of the Mozilla Foundations Firefox browser, would lead to a quick drop in IEs then-96 percent browser market share. With all the information I had in hand, I made the prediction that IEs market share would fall to 75 percent in one year.

As Alan Greenspan might say, I had excessive exuberance. But just how far off was I?

There are several companies that attempt to measure browser share, mainly through access to Web site visitor statistics. The companies dont have exactly the same numbers, but, in general, the market share of IE now seems to be somewhere around 85 to 86 percent, meaning I was off by about 10 percent.

No matter how one looks at it, this is still a significant change, especially given where things stood more than a year ago. And IEs drop in share is a change that all of us who do business on the Web should welcome.

IEs longtime dominance in browser share has had the negative impact of making it easy for developers to build nonstandard Web sites that work only with IE.

The impact on users ranges from inconvenient to life-threatening, with an example of the latter being the Federal Emergency Management Agencys IE-only request-for-assistance form. (Im tracking FEMAs promise to update the form in eWEEK Labs blog at

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about FEMAs Internet Explorer-only request form and its impact.

For a long time, companies that have built IE-only sites have fallen back to the standard excuse of "Hey, just about everyone uses IE."

Well, 85 percent of browser users is not "just about everyone." To put it in numerical terms, published reports from IDC have put the number of Web users north of 570 million. If this number is accurate (and my guess is that it is very conservative), it means there are more than 80 million people who dont use Internet Explorer to surf the Web.

As Ive said before, I dont even know why IE-only sites still exist. Leading development tools such as Macromedias Dreamweaver are now so heavily based on standards that developers need to go well out of their way to write IE-only sites. My guess is that these sites exist because many developers reuse old code that was written for IE specifically.

A 15 percent market share for non-IE users should logically be enough to make IE-only sites a thing of the past, but logic usually doesnt stand a chance against laziness. Thats why alternative browser makers need to work even harder to make their browsers more attractive to IE users who dont like the Microsoft browser but just havent been motivated enough to change.

Opera has made a nice start by making its browser completely free, but whats really needed to shift the tide is for the Mozilla Foundation to turn its attention to the group of users that could really put its Firefox browser over the top—business users. Small things such as deployment and configuration tools would go a long way toward making Firefox more attractive to companies.

/zimages/3/28571.gifRead more here about Operas decision to cancel its ad model and licensing fee.

So far, I havent seen any sign that the Mozilla Foundation is taking this step, but theres time. If the organization works to make Firefox business-friendly, IEs market share could drop by quite a bit, hopefully leading to a more standards-based Web.

But even if the Mozilla Foundation doesnt make this change, I still predict that IEs market share will be even lower next year. This time, however, I think Ill hold off on predicting an exact number.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

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