According to a recent article in the Daily Telegraph, something extraordinary happened recently in the world of web browsers; Google's Chrome overtook Mozilla's Firefox in market share for the first time. This by no means spells the end for Firefox, indeed both browsers currently lag far behind Microsoft's Internet Explorer and this isn't likely to change for at least the time being.
For a while now Google have been effectively sponsoring Firefox, backing them financially in exchange for integration of their search engine within the browser, and this deal was recently renewed to guarantee Firefox's survival for at least the next three years. Since this arrangement was in place long before the launch of Chrome, it seems fair to say that Google was surreptitiously trying to keep users away from Internet Explorer (IE) by ensuring that it always had a viable competitor. Microsoft hit back firstly by improving IE, but also in other slightly more clandestine ways which we'll cover in a moment. With Google now aggressively pushing a viable competitor of their own, it remains to be seen whether they'll want to keep sponsoring Firefox beyond those 3 years, and if not, whether Firefox can survive.
For the time being, IE remains the dominant player in this market by quite a margin, as the graph below indicates:
Plenty has been written elsewhere about what these figures mean, as well as what the trends are likely to be for the future, so we won't dwell too much on that (in short, Chrome is expected to be jostling with IE for #1 position within about two or three years, Firefox and IE will drop market share but only slightly, Safari will stay roughly the same). However what we suspect you really want to know is which of these browsers is best. So as a late Christmas present to you from your friends at Kalexiko, we decided to try them all and find out so that you don't have to.
IE has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, and to all intents and purposes is a very solid piece of software, if not without its flaws. In 2000 Microsoft got in trouble with the US Department of Justice for embedding IE into its Windows operating system to the point that it became somewhat obstructive if you wanted to use a different browser. As a result they had to open up their system and make it easier to use other browsers, and even uninstall IE completely should you wish. However those restrictions are coming to an end, and industry watchers are already suspecting that Microsoft will return to their old ways with future versions of Windows. They're already trying to integrate Bing, their own search engine, into the browser but this can be easily circumvented if necessary. It's important to remember that many features that are now common across all browsers, particularly in privacy and security, were first done by IE so credit where it's due. It's also very simple to use, although due to some poor layout issues it really falls down if you want anything more than a few tabs open at any one time, and the native toolbars (albeit optional) seem rather clumsy. For less web-savvy users IE is quite fit for purpose, although advanced users might do better to look elsewhere.
For years Firefox has been the logical alternative to IE, and as an open source project it benefits from constant improvements via an incredibly short release cycle. So short in fact, that Mozilla unleashed Firefox 9 whilst this article was being written. We think they just did it to impress us, and in the short time we've had to acquaint ourselves with the new version, it seems that they have. There appear to be some slight speed improvements, as well as some cracking tools for web designers. The layout, refined over the years, is also the most intuitive of the lot. In addition whilst it doesn't necessarily make the browser run any better, we like the whole Mozilla ethos. Open source, not-for-profit and somewhat of an endearing underdog to the bigger companies, Firefox has a huge community constantly providing support, improvements and add-ons to improve the browsing experience. It still suffers from some irritating minor problems though, specifically add-on incompatibility after upgrading. It seems inexplicable that they still haven't fixed this, although apparently they're expecting to with the release of Firefox 10, which could be in as little as 6 weeks. Another problem is that if one tab encounters an unresponsive script, it can bring the whole programme grinding to a halt. It's still a great browser though, so if you're comfortable with it there's no real reason to rock the boat.
Except this. We were very impressed with Chrome, far more than we expected to be. In Google's marketing of it they've heavily emphasised its speed compared to other browsers. You might think that a browser would only be as fast as your internet connection, but the truth is that Chrome really is faster. Not by a huge amount, but enough to be noticeable even when browsing normally. There are a few things that take some getting used to with Chrome especially if you've been using IE and Firefox for years, like the smart address bar that combines searching with a normal URL bar (although Firefox already does something similar), but unlike Firefox a single troublesome tab won't crash the whole browser. Apps are another feature that on the face of it seem to be an improvement, and they're implemented in a very similar way to smartphones. Aside from the initial culture shock we really couldn't find a lot wrong with Chrome, which is why we're not at all surprised at the ground it's making on IE and Firefox. If we have to find a downside, it's probably that the Bookmarks toolbar (which they're probably trying to it phase out anyway) seems to jar with the overall pleasantness of other Chrome aspects.
Just a quick word on Safari as it's not really worth considering for Windows. For Macs though, there's nothing better, and unlike the other browsers is designed to work perfectly in tandem with Mac OS. Unless you like the idea of apps (in which case have a look at Chrome), there's no real reason to use anything else.
So in the end it seems to be Chrome that wins. For now. Over the next few years this is of course liable to change, and any of its competitors might release something that blows it out of the water. We haven't even talked about mobile browsing. The most important thing to bear in mind with browsers is that considering how much time is spent using them, it's always best to pick the one you're most comfortable with.