2011: The Year of Firefox - or of Chrome?

Everyone knows that there are lies, damned lies and Web analytics, but the latter can at least give a feel for what's going on. And the latest figures for browser market share in Europe certainly do that. The key event is immediately evident:...

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Everyone knows that there are lies, damned lies and Web analytics, but the latter can at least give a feel for what's going on. And the latest figures for browser market share in Europe certainly do that.

The key event is immediately evident: as the graph shows, Firefox's market share has overtaken that of Internet Explorer, with 38.11% against 37.52% (although I wouldn't place much – any – faith in those last few significant figures).

Now, it's true that this is only for Europe, which has historically always led developments here, but it's still a moment to savour. After all, when both Mozilla and then Firefox began, few gave them much chance of succeeding in taking on the Microsoft behemoth. There just weren't any precedents for a plucky newcomer – let alone an open source one – to start from zero and then power ahead of a company that seemed unstoppable in its key markets. It's true that on the server side, Apache is ahead of Microsoft's Internet Information Server, but it got there first, and so was effectively the one to beat: the client side was quite different.

Of course, that's not the only story the graph tells. Firefox has actually gone down slightly over the last year – it's just that Internet Explorer has gone down even more. And the slack has been picked up almost completely by Google's Chrome, whose share has risen from 5.06% to 14.58% during that period.

That's pretty stunning by any measure, and confirms Chrome's ascent into the browser pantheon. The question is obviously whether that heady ascent will continue, and what happens to the other browsers?

Naturally, a lot depends on what features new versions of Firefox and, to a lesser extent, Internet Explorer have, but I see no reason why Chrome won't rise to above 20% in the short term. This means, of course, that the market share of Firefox and Internet Explorer will continue to drop. But as I noted some time back, this really isn't a huge problem for Firefox – although it is for Microsoft.

The reason is quite simple: Firefox was never aiming at world domination, it was fighting to create an open Web where no browser held such a dominant position that it could ignore open standards and impose de facto ones instead. We pretty much have that now, with Internet Explorer increasingly standards-compliant – and proud of it, amazingly.

With the continuing rise of Chrome to the point where we have three browsers with more or less the same market share, we will have a perfect situation for friendly competition that is three-cornered – even better than simple two-sided rivalry. I feel confident in predicting that the Web will become even more open as a result (it's a pity that it remains threatened in other ways – ACTA, censorship etc.)

But that does not mean that Firefox and Chrome are identical for these purposes, and that we needn't worry about Firefox's market share. It's important to remember why Google created Chrome, and why it released it as open source. It's simply that it knows that placing the code in the open, and allowing others to build upon it is the fastest way to establish a product in a competitive market. In doing so, it's true that Google promotes open standards and open source – but only up to a point.

The key difference is that Google sees open source as a way of generating more revenue elsewhere, while Firefox regards the revenue that it generates from its search box as a way of furthering its work to protect and deepen the open Web. I know which one I'd rather put my trust in for the future...

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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