Browser Battles Become OS Warfare

Just as we were about to post a story on the renewed browser wars, news broke that Google is going after not only Microsoft’s share of the browser market but the Operating System market as well!   A few quick changes, some phone calls and research and we are back on track with thoughts on this extraordinary news and Microsoft’s vulnerable position in both the browser and OS markets.

The past year has seen a steady slide for the once indisputable champion of the browser market, Internet Explorer. All the while, competitors FireFox, Safari, and Chrome have made considerable gains in market share, indicating that Microsoft has a few dents in its armor after years of dominance.

Browswer Wars

I pooled the data from one of my busiest web sites (a travel site with over 25 million annual page views) to see what browsers and operating systems the readers have used to access the site over the past year.  What I found really surprised me.  I’ve always looked at Mozilla’s FireFox as an innovative alternative to Internet Explorer which probably had limited mass appeal.  However, statistics from the past year show that FireFox is now within striking distance of Microsoft with a 32% share of visits to my web site compared with Internet Explorer’s (IE)47%.  Apple’s Safari has ticked up 5% over the past year and Google’s new Chrome browser has an encouraging 3% share of the traffic in its short year of life.  All other browsers came in at less than 1% market share and won’t be discussed in this article.

FireFox, an open source collaboration, has been fighting the good fight for several years, with the goal of creating a lighter faster browser which allows users to customize and add only the additional features they actually want and need.  Apple’s Safari browser by contrast has had a captive base of Mac users and is installed by default on every Apple computer shipped.  However, in recent weeks, Apple has made the debut of a slick new version of the browser which is lightning fast, easy to use, and down right beautiful to look at.  Safari’s surge in the ratings show that the browser may finally be making the leap beyond just Mac computer users.  That stats show a real change in browser use.  And this is where things get really interesting.

Google shocked the world when it announced the Chrome browser last September.  And while the news was exciting, I couldn’t imagine why we would need another browser option?  Microsoft was everyone’s default, FireFox had cornered the web nerd market, and Apple had their own fervent fans.  What did Google have to gain?  Still, they must have had a reason – perhaps beyond creating a simple new browser choice for users.

Many, including Telecom Monthly, speculated that this was an elegant way for Google to eventually consolidate it’s many web based products (Gmail, Docs, Maps, Search, News, etc) into one convenient platform.  We got close.  But Google had even bigger plans in mind.  By this time next year, Google intends to morph Chrome into a full fledged operating system capable of running on netbook computers. From there, Google will no doubt set its sights on even bigger computer targets.

But is it worth it?  Does Google stand to actually gain enough new users to make the huge amount of time and money that building a new OS will consume worth while?  If we look at how quickly Microsoft’s hold on the browser market has melted, Google may very well be on to something.  Following Vista’s miserable launch, a poor economy, and Microsoft’s reputation for expensive software, an inexpensive and light weight new browser from the trusted name of Google might very well have a shot.

The computer market has changed rapidly in the past couple of years.  Microsoft built its Windows legacy on a big powerful OS designed to run ever bigger and faster computers running ever bigger and more bloated software.  And Windows did that job pretty well for a long time.   But something fundamental has changed.  There is a decreasing emphasis on installing big processor intensive programs on a local computer.  Rather, applications and storage have begun to move onto the web (and into the cloud), which has significantly reduced the computing power that many users need.   Applications like web based email, Google Docs, online maps, web browsing, and millions of newer web based business applications don’t reside on the users computers at all but rather on the web and are accessed via a browser.

While Windows has gotten bigger over the years, computers have quite suddenly gotten smaller.  Netbooks, handhelds, smart phones, and new net-enabled consumer products just aren’t happy running a big bloated operating system like Windows.  And that is the exact market that Google will target with the first release of its new Chrome Browser next year.

And that would be big news by itself, but given that Google also has an Android operating system targeted at small devices, Google Docs squared off against MS Office, the Google Chrome browser with laser sights on Internet Explorer, and now the Google Chrome OS  which will go after Microsoft’s bread and butter Windows products, it is clear that Google has gone to war with Microsoft.

The chart above shows that at the same time Microsoft was losing browser share on our sister site, they were also losing OS share, with Apple picking up the difference.  Apple has proven that by filling a niche, you can compete against Microsoft.  A Google product designed to fill in the holes where Microsoft is weakest, could fill a niche or two as well.  Few would have considered Google’s web based “Docs” to be much of a threat to Microsoft Office.  And yet, here we are in the middle of a recession with companies everywhere at least giving the free Google Docs a test run.  Anything to save money in a pinch.  And the same will likely be true for netbook manufacturers.  Netbooks are value priced electronics and a big chunk of their hard costs are tied up in Microsoft Windows.  At the right price, Google Chrome OS could quickly become the OS of choice and necessity.

Google has a solid reputation for building lightweight and free web based applications.  That’s compelling these days, and people are taking note.  Apple has pounded the notion in advertising that Windows is imperfect, difficult to use, and insecure.  The Apple attacks have helped to make Microsoft vulnerable, and both Apple and Google will benefit from that.

If Microsoft’s Windows 7 release isn’t a huge success this Winter, and Apple and Google continue taking pot shots and making strides in the OS and browser war, Microsoft will have a lot of dramatic hole patching to do in 2010.  Microsoft is no longer an unstoppable Goliath, Apple and Google are titans in their own right.  It appears that the browser battle has suddenly become open OS warfare.

We are practically drooling over our keyboards in anticipation of the drama already!

-iTodd

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