Feature: Microsoft return fire in the browser wars

Internet Explorer is on its eigth iteration but is still losing users.

Internet Explorer is on its eight iteration but is still losing users.

That Microsoft is now airing prime-time television ads to promote Internet Explorer 8 says more than its competitors’ bragging ever could. Years of security threats and innovation by more nimble rivals has given the iconic browser brand a bad reputation and shrinking market share; both of which Microsoft is now trying to reverse.

Just a few years ago this kind of push was completely unnecessary. As late as 2004 the blue ‘e’ was a standard feature on almost all PC – and Mac – desktops, for many users signifying ‘the internet’ as opposed to an application of any kind. However 2004 was also the year that Mozilla launched its alternative Firefox browser, rekindling competition that had not existed in the market for years.

“The browser is probably the most visible [Microsoft software] people use so it is at the forefront of the competition we’re facing,” says Ronnie Dockery, manager of Microsoft’s Windows client business in Ireland. “Competition is a good thing and like the operating system space it’s a race; you have to be ahead of the game all the time.”

At the time of Firefox’s arrival Internet Explorer – which was then on its sixth iteration – had over 91% of the browser market according to analytics company Net Applications. Since then the application’s share has been on a near-constant downward trend, rising only briefly in 2007 on the back of the launch of Internet Explorer 7.

Internet Explorer 8 launched last year into a very different climate to its predecessors; the brand now holds 61% of users against Firefox’s 24%.

This shift in customers has an impact beyond the application people use to access the internet. In many cases the browser a person uses can inform what search engine and web services they frequent, the precise reason Google launched its Chrome browser in 2008.

Threatening to chip away Internet Explorer’s lead even further is the recent introduction of the ‘browser ballot’ screen, an EU-mandated menu that offers Windows users a choice of browsers upon starting their machine for the first time. This decision came on the back of a European Commission investigation which found that Internet Explorer had an unfair advantage as it came pre-installed on all Windows operating systems.

On the back of the option being offered rivals like Firefox and Opera both recorded a rise in downloads and a further rise in market share. Mr Dockery, however, says the offer of a choice to customers is not something the company fears.

“The browser ballot was proposed by Microsoft to the EU and it gives people choice which is a good thing,” he says. “I think people should by all means take a look at other browsers but my sentiment, and I think the sentiment of the market is that Internet Explorer is the most popular browser and that’s for a reason.”

However the fact is that many people abandoned Internet Explorer over the years because they preferred the product others were offering.

Internet Explorer 6 was launched in 2001 and was kept as the standard-bearer for five years, compared to the standard two-year cycle used for other releases. During this time Microsoft failed to adapt to the new ideas like tabbed browsing, only doing so when Internet Explorer 7 arrived in 2006.

Internet Explorer 6′s lifetime was also marked by a series of high-profile security and bug issues which the company was slow to fix, something many put down to complacency on Microsoft’s part.

Responding to this perception, security has now become a core message in the push for Internet Explorer 8. The company has also been far more pro-active with updates too, pushing them through to users as part of the regular Windows update schedule.

Statistics suggest their claim of a more secure browser is not just clever marketing too. One of the browser’s much-lauded safety features is the SmartScreen Filter, which checks addresses visited to see if they are harmful and warns the user if they are.

A survey run by NSS Labs found that Internet Explorer 8 blocked 85% of harmful sites tested compared to the 29% blocked by Firefox. The filter scores particularly well when blocking ‘socially engineered’ attacks – where a fraudulent site tricks users into giving personal information or downloading a virus.

“Fundamentally it’s more secure and it’s proven to be more secure; getting a virus is not a nice thing to happen and we’re ahead of the game big time there,” says Mr Dockery. “If you’re the most popular then you’re the most attacked and that is something that other browsers are going to have to deal with now too.”

Mr Dockery also suggests that Firefox’s open source nature may end up being a double-edged sword, as malicious code could disguise itself as an add-on and be installed by an unwitting user.

Many of the browser’s other new features will already be familiar to its rivals’ users, however. InPrivate, for example, is a feature that deletes all history and cookies after a browsing session and was first available in Google’s Chrome as ‘Incognito’ mode.

“To be competitive we have to have the latest features in there and if the competition comes out with a neat feature we have to look to leverage that too,” says Mr Dockery “It’s an evolution; we look at what customers want, we do research and we look at other browsers – and they look at us too.”

Arguably, however, Internet Explorer’s greatest competition does not come from Google and Mozilla but rather from within. Despite being available to users for over a year Internet Explorer 8 only makes up 1/3 of all Internet Explorer installs in use, with 23% of users still running version 7 and 34% sticking with version 6. This is despite the best efforts of the company and even the German and French governments, both of which have advised its citizens to move away from the programme.

“The threat profile has changed and we’ve evolved with the latest version [of the browser],” says Mr Dockery. “I always tell people they need to update to the latest version and that’s a message we need to get out there.”

This feature was written for The Irish Times and was first published there on the 30th April 2010.

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