Top web browsers 2020: Microsoft’s IE and Edge move up

Mozilla's efforts to make Firefox more attractive as a web browser have failed to move the share needle. Meanwhile, Google's Chrome continues its dominance.

Microsoft’s browsers last month surged to close the year with the highest user share since August 2018, giving its maker a morale boost just weeks before it is to deliver a totally revamped Edge.

According to data published by metrics vendor Net Applications, Microsoft’s December browser share — a combination of Internet Explorer (IE) and Edge — climbed 1.4 percentage points to 14.2%, the highest mark in all of 2019. The year’s total user share increase of 1.8 points marked the first time since 2014 that Microsoft’s browsers put in a positive January-to-December.

Over half of December’s gain came from Edge, which added eight-tenths of a percentage point, reaching 6.8%, a record for a browser Microsoft will relaunch in two weeks. IE also climbed last month, adding six-tenths of a percentage point and rising to 7.4%, the most for that browser since August.

Edge’s increase bettered, proportionally, the accompanying December increase of Windows 10, and so the percentage of the latter’s users relying on the browser ticked up to 12.3%, the best number since last summer. December may be the last month that Edge’s portion of Windows 10’s browser activity can be reliably pegged, what with the impending launch of the final “full-Chromium” version for Windows 7, which at the end of 2019 accounted for nearly 31% of all Windows.

Although Windows 7 will receive its final security updates on Jan. 14 – except for businesses that pay Microsoft for the post-retirement Extended Security Updates, or ESU – there will be a sizable number of PCs globally running the OS after that date (an estimated 446 million, give or take). It’s almost certain that some will dump IE for the new Edge.

But how much ground the new, Chromium-based Edge gains, if any, once it is in polished form remains unclear. Much will depend on how strong users’ ties are to Chrome, whether IT admins will return their charges to Microsoft’s browser and Google’s reactions. How Edge plays out during 2020 will be among the year’s more interesting enterprise stories.

IE fared well, too, as difficult to believe as that is. By Net Applications’ numbers, IE accounted for 8.6% of all Windows browsing last month, its best mark since May. Although Microsoft has maintained IE on life-support, catering to those organizations that still need it to run specific web apps or intranet sites not worth refreshing, the browser’s share will likely fall as the new Edge’s rises: The remade Edge includes an IE mode, which should make the stand-alone Internet Explorer moot for most commercial customers. Another year like that and IE will be an afterthought run by fewer than 5% of Windows users.

It may be months, however, before an accelerated IE decline, if one occurs, becomes clear enough to fuel future forecasts of its final days.

Year-end recap: Microsoft’s browsers gained 1.8 percentage points in 2019, representing a 14% increase in share.

The S.S. Firefox stays afloat

In December, Firefox recovered almost half the user share it lost the month prior; the browser ended the year at 8.4%, up two-tenths of a point from November.

Although that kept Mozilla’s ship from slipping under the waves – something Computerworld feared was in the cards a month ago – Firefox’s future remained more gloomy than glad. It spent the whole second half of 2019 under 9% – the six-month average was 8.5% – and all but one month of the year in single digits, a first (at least since when it was regularly gaining share as it nibbled at IE).

Computerworld‘s revised forecast – based, as usual, on the 12-month average of changes – now has Firefox slipping under 8% by April and falling to 7% about a year from now. And that’s in the face of a small bump in December. The harder Mozilla works, it seems, at improving Firefox – it’s easily the leader in the across-the-browser-market-bar-Chrome anti-tracking movement – the lower droops its user share. How depressing for its fans, users or not.

Year-end recap: Firefox lost 1.2 percentage points during 2019, representing a 13% decline in share.

Chrome sets consecutive loss record

During December, Chrome dropped half a percentage point, slipping to 66.6% and ending the year down that same amount from 2019’s beginning. This was the first time since 2014 that Chrome lost share over the course of a year.

Last month also marked the first time Chrome had posted three consecutive months of losses (they totaled 1.8 percentage points), an even stronger signal than in November that Google’s browser may have topped out.

There’s certainly no danger that Chrome will suddenly find itself usurped by, say, Firefox or Edge, not when it accounted for two-thirds of global browser activity on personal computers last month. But it was impossible for Chrome’s growth, which started seriously only in 2014, seven years after the browser’s debut, to continue forever. Although it may be too early to say Chrome has peaked – the high-water mark thus far was 68.6% in July – declines over multiple months seem a worthwhile indicator.

This year’s browser story should be the impact, if any, on Chrome from Microsoft’s decision to recast Edge as a clone of the Google application. If swaths of enterprise IT decide to ditch Chrome and replace it with the Edge knock-off – for manageability reasons, Chrome could be threatened in the very long term. That has to be at the center of Microsoft’s strategy.

A new Computerworld forecast now puts Chrome on a very gradual – half a percentage point a month – decline, with the browser dipping under 66% sometime in the spring of 2021.

Year-end recap: Chrome lost half a percentage point in 2019, representing a 1% decline in share.

Safari reclaims defectors

Elsewhere in Net Applications’ data, Apple’s Safari posted the fifth straight month of gains, adding seven-tenths of a percentage point to reach 6% in December. Opera Software’s browser lost three-tenths of a point and slid to 1%.

Safari’s increase came as macOS itself dipped to accounting for 11.1% of all desktop operating systems, a decline of half a point from November. In turn, that sent Safari’s share of macOS for December soaring to 54.3%, its highest portion of that market since November 2017. (December was also the third straight month during which that metric increased.) Safari, which has also emphasized its privacy chops, particularly its anti-tracking capabilities, has demonstrated that Chrome can be vulnerable, at least in some spaces; as recently as May 2019, Safari accounted for just 35% of macOS-based browsing.

Year-end recap: Safari gained 2.3 percentage points during 2019, representing a 62% increase in share.

Year-end recap: Opera lost seven-tenths of a percentage points during 2019, representing a 43% decline in share.

Browser stats December 2019IDG/GREGG KEIZER
Safari boosted its user share by more than 60%, making Apple’s browser the clear winner of 2019. Meanwhile, Opera and Firefox lost ground between January and December. (Data: Net Applications.)

Top web browsers, November 2019

If Firefox were a ship, it would be becalmed on a flat sea, loosened seams leaking faster than the hand-worked pumps can empty the bilge, passengers springing overboard and swimming toward other vessels – those with sails bearing rivals’ logos.

According to data published Sunday by analytics company Net Applications, Firefox’s share for November slumped to 8.2%, down half a percentage point. It was the seventh month in the last 12 in which Firefox spilled share, the fifth where the loss amounted to a half point or more.

From 2005, when Firefox was scratching its way out of the single digits in an insurrection against Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE), the browser has posted lower shares only three times, all in a short stretch of 2016 when Firefox bottomed out at 7.7%. That time, the browser clawed back to 13% (in October 2017) before again shrinking.

Unless something suddenly stems Firefox’s current free-fall, the browser will return to that low point of 7.7% by June, according to Computerworld‘s forecast, which relies on Firefox’s 12-month average. That same forecast predicts the open-source browser will dip under 8% as early as January.

Mozilla’s efforts to make Firefox more attractive as a browser choice have failed to move the share needle. From its November 2017 “Quantum” relaunch to its recent emphasis on the hottest browser topic – privacy in general, blocking ad and site trackers more specifically – the improvements and enhancements have been accompanied by collective shrug. Or worse, a step toward the exit.

Historically, Firefox has been the counterweight to the then-current leader, first IE, then Google’s Chrome. Firefox’s flirtation with irrelevancy as exhibited by its smaller user share may see that counterweight go weightless. Microsoft’s decision to adopt Google’s browser technology for its reborn Edge strengthened the monoculture. Sans Firefox, the browser choice becomes Chrome or near-Chrome.

Chrome: Settling into its spot?

During November, Chrome lost a quarter of a percentage point, dipping to 67.2%, the browser’s lowest mark since June.

While the loss was little more than a rounding error and could not be considered a threat to Chrome’s dominance by any stretch, Google’s browser may be close to its upper-end limit.

Last month’s share was identical to Chrome’s number at the start of the year, for one, so for all the wild swings — up 2.3 points one month, down 1.7 points the next — it ended where it began. And although Chrome shed three-quarters of a percentage point in the past six months, in the last three the movements were a wash, hinting that changes to share have slowed.

The forecast based on the 12-month average foretold some gains — Chrome should make the 68% mark by June — but the prophesied increase was significantly less than a month ago, when the prediction contended Chrome would hit 70% by mid-2020.

IE edges Edge

Microsoft’s browsers recovered three-tenths of a percentage point in November, the second straight month of share gains (and only the fourth time that’s happened in the last five years). IE+Edge ended November at 12.8%.

That total was tallied of two browsers, IE and Edge, with the increase credited entirely to the ancient and obsolete IE, not the at-least-newer Edge: IE climbed four-tenths of a point to 6.8% while Edge fell a tenth to 6%.

Because Windows 10’s share of all operating systems also declined, Edge remained with an 11.2% share of all Windows 10 browser activity, the level it’s been stuck at for a full quarter.

Measuring Edge against Windows 10 will soon be impossible, as the revamped browser — Microsoft tossed its own technologies and built a new Edge from Google’s Chromium – will reach release status Jan. 15, launching for Windows 7 and 8.1 as well as 10, not to mention macOS.

Whether Edge’s remodel will result in a jolt to its user share is unknown. Microsoft is, if not counting on Edge’s phoenix-rising, eager to put a thumb on the scale to boost the chances; it will automatically replace the original homegrown Edge with the Chromium-based version rather than wait as users do what they do best, stick with the status quo.

Edge may never gain much ground in Net Applications’ measurements. The California metrics vendor best quantifies individuals’ browsing activity, and while Microsoft wouldn’t object if that group dumped Chrome for a Chrome clone, there’s good evidence that the retuned Edge is a corporate play.

Elsewhere in Net Applications’ numbers, Apple’s Safari gained half a percentage point for the fourth consecutive month, climbing to 5.3%, and Opera Software’s browser remained flat at 1.3%. Safari’s increase came as macOS climbed six-tenths of a percentage point to 11.6%, a record for Apple’s operating system. For November, Safari’s share of macOS rose to 45.6%, the highest mark since December 2017, showing that it is possible for a browser to convince customers to ditch Chrome for a browser they’d used before.

Net Applications calculates user share by detecting the agent strings of the browsers that render the websites of Net Applications’ clients. The firm tallies visitor sessions to measure browser user activity.

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