Microsoft's upcoming Spartan browser is set to be the first big new release in the desktop browser market for quite some time, upsetting a tentative equilibrium that has existed for roughly the past two years.
Broadly speaking, the trend has been that Google Chrome is the new 800-pound gorilla of the market, taking market share from both Internet Explorer and Firefox, with niche players like Opera and Safari maintaining relatively minimal user bases.
But beyond that, it's difficult to be more specific major indices like W3Schools, StatCounter and NetMarketShare all paint very different pictures of the overall landscape. NetMarketShare's numbers show Chrome surpassing Firefox's market share in May 2014, and pushing farther ahead since but both remain well behind IE nearly 60% share, which only began to decline in in December.
W3Schools, by contrast, suggest that Chrome is on top, and has been for a long time surpassing IE in 2011 and accounting for 62.5% traffic in the most recent monthly figures, compared to 22.9% for Firefox and just 8% for IE. StatCounter's picture is different again, showing that Internet Explorer is in second place at 19.5%, behind a dominant Chrome at 52.3% and only just ahead of Firefox, with 18.4%.
It's important to remember that each index is measuring different data W3Schools is counting only visitors to its own site. All three sources, however, agree that Chrome's market share is headed north, while the other two of the big three are either treading water or declining. Can Spartan change that? Read on.
For many, it's not exactly a confidence booster that Microsoft's forthcoming new browser will be a "Windows App," rather than a traditional desktop application. It sports the characteristic borderless frames and blockily minimalist aesthetic, and the overall impression is of a stripped-down, simplified version of IE, according to an initial appreciation by Network World's Howard Wen. ("First Look: Microsoft's new Spartan browser for Windows 10")
But, in a lot of ways, that's probably a good thing Chrome's got a very similar look and feel, and it's doing pretty well for itself.
Is it going to single-handedly restore Microsoft's supremacy in PC browsers? Certainly not right away. But, from here, it does look highly competitive.
So what about the browser Spartan's trying to knock off of its perch? Chrome's still got major advantages over the rest of the field, including a perceived performance edge, simple and elegant design, and tight integration with Google's wildly popular web services like Gmail.
For the moment, those features seem to be keeping Chrome in the ascendancy. Moves like the upcoming adoption of HTTP/2 a new web protocol that should further boost performance reflect a continued focus on a successful design philosophy. Probably the biggest point of criticism for Chrome is that its integration with the rest of Google's services and, consequently, with its ludicrously profitable advertising business makes for something of a privacy nightmare.
Google's ongoing legal battles over user privacy in general particularly in the European Union may scare off those for whom privacy is a well-understood and important issue, but beyond that, users as a whole haven't let those concerns stop them from adopting Chrome in huge numbers.
From its roots in the wreckage of Netscape Navigator, Firefox has become among the best-known and most-used pieces of open-source software in the world but it's never quite taken over the market the way some thought it might when it really started to take off, about a decade ago.
It's tough to escape the conclusion that Chrome essentially stole Firefox's thunder taking over as the alternative to Internet Explorer before Firefox had fully stepped into the role. The flexibility, via the huge ecosystem of extensions, is still there, but the browser's reputation (fair or unfair) for lackluster performance next to its Google-powered rival may have damaged its brand.
But Firefox is starting to find its stride again in terms of development and features a new focus on performance is evident from the first new release of 2015, and the WebRTC communication gadget Hello is an intriguing one. Firefox isn't done yet.
Finally, what about Internet Explorer? Well, for starters, it's essentially doomed Spartan, or whatever its eventual release name is, is definitely Microsoft's browser of the future. But IE will stick around for a while, largely for compatibility reasons.
It's not a standout, in terms of features or performance but it's at least been developed more assiduously than it was during its long period of unchallenged primacy, and remains a perfectly usable browser today. Unless you want to use a better one, that is. Or if you're on a Mac, where IE hasn't worked in 10 years.
IE's never going to win many popularity contests among developers, but it's undeniably still one of the most-used browsers in the world, and will continue to be a factor long after the release of Spartan even if Spartan will be Microsoft's main attempt to re-conquer the space.