Internet Explorer fends off Firefox, only to face new foe

IE posted its first browser share gain in months, but a new competitor looms: Web apps

Microsoft's Internet Explorer posted its first market share gain in six months, according to the latest data from NetMarketShare, halting a steady slide that had seen the browser lose nearly 4 percentage points since July 2010. The gain of 0.77 percent is IE's biggest increase in more than a year.

Firefox, meanwhile, was unable to capitalize on IE's faltering, closing the gap merely by staying pat or losing share less rapidly than IE. But now, Firefox has lost nearly 1 percentage point, and IE has grabbed most of that share, with the remainder going to Google's Chrome browser, which increased 0.23 percent.

Mobile browsers are slowly creeping up in usage as well. NetMarketShare pegs mobile browsers as holding 3.88 percent of the market in February 2011, up from 3.45 percent in December 2010, and that is likely understating the actual share. Mobile usage is hard to track, particularly with complicating factors, such as some mobile carriers stripping out the user agent strings used for tracking. The mobile number may look small, even if one allows for underestimation, but the mobile segment is growing very fast. Its market share was closer to 1 percent a year ago, and it will most likely chip away at the numbers for the big desktop browsers.

The big gain no doubt came as welcome relief for Microsoft, as the browser wars remain as heated as ever. But browsers in general are now facing a new opponent: Web applications.

According to cloud security vendor Zscaler's State of the Web Q4 2010 report, nonbrowser corporate Web traffic -- Zscaler defines this as "native applications that are transmitting HTTP(S) traffic" -- rose from 10.5 percent of all traffic in January 2010 to 21.75 percent in December. Unfortunately for Microsoft, a big chunk of that gain came at IE's expense.

According to Michael Sutton, Zscaler's vice president of security research, IE's overall use dropped by as much as 12 percent, and the other browsers didn't pick up that audience, meaning users were increasingly turning to Web applications in lieu of a browser. Sutton cited the richer user experience of Web apps as a primary reason for the switch.

Zscaler's numbers are almost entirely based on desktop usage of native apps -- that is, installed apps written explicitly for the PC or laptop OS. The company only recently added mobile tracking. Once the numbers include mobile software (think of all those iPhone and Android native apps that access the Internet sans browser), Web apps are likely to grab an even bigger chunk of traffic.

IE is doing well in the zero-sum game of browser market share, but if overall browser usage continues to erode, that crown could lose some of its luster.

This story, "Internet Explorer fends off Firefox, only to face new foe," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.