What's in a Number?

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There's been a certain excitement in the blogosphere around the release of some figures about Firefox's market share in Europe. These show Firefox holding over 30%, while Internet Explorer is below 60%; alongside these, Safari notches up 2.5% and Google's Chrome 1.1%.

One thing that few seem to have picked up on is the unsatisfactory methodology behind these numbers:

In this study the Europe indicator is representative of the countries audited. The average visits’ share in Europe is the average of the indicators for the 32 countries studied. Therefore the behaviour of a European country generating few visits is equitably taken into account in the visits recorded for the continent to which it belongs.

This is slightly ambiguous, but my interpretation is that the market share is calculated for each country, and then averaged over countries. This means that small countries can skew the results disproportionately; it would have been far better to calculate the market share across the whole of Europe directly. But leaving aside this issue, and the fact that research refers only to Europe - historically at the vanguard of Firefox uptake - it is worth looking at the numbers and considering what significance they would have, assuming them to be a representation of what is happening in Europe, and might well happen around the world in due course

The figure of less than 60% for Internet Explorer is certainly impressive, given the fact that it held close to 100% of the market a few years ago. One question is: what is the breakthrough point for Firefox? The current 30%? 50%? Something else? For me, an important psychological moment will be when Internet Explorer dips below 50%, and Firefox above 40%. At that point, both will be in the 40-50% range, and it will be clear that they are essentially on a par.

What about Google's Chrome? It is currently at the level of background noise, but that is likely to change thanks to Google's prominent placement of link to its browser on the home page, at least some of the time. Given the huge reach of that page, Chrome is certain to pick up many new users.

Google's decision to promote its own browser might be seen as a threat to Mozilla, which has traditionally enjoyed a close relationship with the company, but I view it as a positive move. It's true that some potential Firefox users may be lost to Chrome, and that means lost revenue (because of the income from the search box in Firefox). But I think that's more than outweighed by the benefit of having a well-funded, extremely ambitious browser team pushing Firefox's developers to do better. Indeed, one of the main reasons for Internet Explorer's downfall was simply that it had no competition. Microsoft and its programmers became lazy, the product suffered - and the market was ripe for a newcomer to enter and take significant share.

It's also worth remembering that another major problem with Internet Explorer was that it created a monoculture that was only too easy for malware to exploit. The more diversity there is in an ecosystem, the better it is for everyone. So the rise of Chrome should be seen as good news - not least because the source is available (even if an official GNU/Linux version is not out yet) through the related Chromium project.

This is probably the most important message to take away from the browser share figures: that we are entering a new, multipolar world, where no one browser dominates - just as is supposed to happen when open standards prevail. What matters is not so much the exact numbers of the market share - whether Firefox has 40% or 49% - but the pattern and distribution, and what that tells us about the overall dynamics of the sector.

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