Understandably, commentators are getting excited over the fact that according to one survey Internet Explorer has gained browser market share for the second month running. Not only that, but Firefox has lost market share for the third month running. Should Mozilla be worried?
First of all, it's important to keep things in perspective. Internet Explorer has gained 0.42% in a month: that's little more than statistical noise, and only from one data source. As for Firefox, it's important to remember that over the last year its market share has hovered around the 23-24% mark, and so is essentially static in what is presumably a growing market: it is still gaining users. The main change in this time has been the undeniable rise of Google's Chrome.
That's significant for a number of reasons. First, because it signals Google's willingness to enter mature software markets. It confirms Google's tactical use of open source to undermine proprietary competitors (something that other companies like IBM were one of the first to twig) – precisely its approach in the mobile sector too. It also has wider ramifications for Google's future products, notable ChromeOS, which seems to be a browser-based approach to computing that places Chrome at the heart of the user experience.
As well as adding to the pressure on Microsoft, Chrome has also provide direct competition for Firefox, in almost exactly the same market sub-sector of open source browsers. It's true that there have been other players there – for example, Epiphany and Konqueror – but none has had the resources of Google to throw behind the code, however good that might be. In particular, it has allowed Google to iterate its product very rapidly, and hence to close the feature gap with Firefox.
Google's success is evident, not least in terms of mind share. Many pundits have expressed their satisfaction after switching from Firefox, and that has inevitably fed through in terms of growing market share.
As I've said before, I think that's good news for everyone – including Firefox. Success can be a terrible thing in terms of taking the edge off a group's competitive drive. Although I don't detect any complacency on the part of the Firefox team, there's no doubt that having a hungry competitor snapping at your heels concentrates the mind wonderfully.
The question is, how will things pan out now? As people have pointed out, waiting in the wings is Internet Explorer 9, which is supposedly even better than Internet Explorer 8, itself a great improvement on previous Microsoft offerings. That could mean more market share gains for the company. Against that, we are starting to see some genuinely innovative ideas coming out of the Firefox team, and that may well help it increase its own share. And of course, the arrival of Google's Chrome OS could well drive may lead to a further surge in its user base.
Essentially, then, I haven't a clue what is going to happen.
But one thing is clear: we no longer live in a simple binary world of Internet Explorer as the dominant player and Firefox as the doughty but distant challenger. We are entering a new situation with three powerful players all striving to impress users with their respective strengths and capabilities, each sometimes gaining, sometimes losing a little market share.
In this sense, Mozilla has won, because this kind of healthy competition was *precisely* what it was trying to achieve when it launched its open source browser project over a decade ago. It has also won in the sense that Internet Explorer is now much more compliant with open Web standards, and seems unlikely to try to lock down the Internet again with its own proprietary add-ons as it did successfully during the dotcom boom. As a result, it's probably fair to say that with its relatively static market share, what we are seeing is not so much the beginning of the end for Firefox, just the end of the beginning where it was the plucky underdog able to ride an easy wave of browser rebellion.
Ultimately, then, the exact numbers don't matter: what counts is precisely the kind of unpredictable, constantly-evolving situation we see developing in the browser sector. Basically, browsers are exciting again: what more can we ask?