Google's Chrome is hot on the heels Apple's Safari when it comes to claiming the position as the third most popular web browser, says Net Applications.

The web metrics company recently introduced a new methodology that weights browser usage share by the estimated size of each country's internet population.

According to Net Applications, countries such as China, which has an estimated 253 million internet users, were previously underrepresented, while others, like the US, were over-represented in its unique visitor tallies.

Net Applications said that under its new methodology, Safari now accounts for 4.1 percent of the browser market, but Chrome is quickly catching up with 2.6 percent. Previously, the separation between Safari and Chrome was a daunting 6.6 percentage points; now the gap is only 1.5 points.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), which accounted for 67.7 percent of all browsers used in July, continues to lose ground to Firefox, at 22.5 percent, Safari and Chrome. Opera, which accounts for almost 2 percent of all browsers, remained flat, as it has for months.

Even if Chrome keeps up its pace, however, it will need more than a year to pass Safari. The Google browser's average gain during the last 11 months, while twice that of the average monthly increase by Safari, has an edge of just 0.12 percentage point per month. At that rate, it will take Chrome 13 months to slip by Safari.

Chrome's growth trend may change in the future, when it releases versions for the Mac and Linux; currently, Chrome is only available in a production edition for Windows. Google has released developer-only versions of Chrome for the Mac and Linux, but has not set a time table for code suitable for day-to-day use.

Net Applications' June-July data also revealed an impressive, although incomplete, conversion of Firefox 3.0 users to the new Firefox 3.5, which Mozilla launched on June 30. During July, Firefox 3.0 dropped 3.8 percentage points, while Firefox 3.5 climbed 4.1 points. Mozilla has yet to formally offer the upgrade to Firefox 3.0 users, although those who have initiated an update have been allowed to migrate to the faster Version 3.5.

Net Applications measures browser usage by tracking the machines that surf to the 40,000 sites it monitors for clients, which results in a data pool of about 160 million unique visitors per month. Its current browser share data is available online.

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See also: Internet Explorer share below 50% in two years