IE9 vs. Firefox 4: A Tale of the Tortoise and the Hare

It's an exciting day. Yes, it is April Fool's Day--which is quite fun, but that isn't what I am referring to. New browser usage stats are out; giving us something other than just the marketing spin Microsoft and Mozilla try so hard to put on their own launch day numbers. These initial numbers, though, are a flash in time and illustrate a sort of tortoise and hare approach that requires taking a longer view.

Net Applications has published its browser statistics for the month of March. Internet Explorer 9 was officially launched on the evening of Monday, March 14, and Firefox 4 wasn't available until about a week later, on March 22, so this month's results don't necessarily paint a full or fair picture of how those browsers are faring thus far.

Breaking down browser stats is a nuanced endeavor that varies depending on the lens you view it through.
First, let's just take a look at the Net Applications browser usage data. Looking at the global data, Chrome and Safari are the big winners with gains of 0.64 and 0.25 percentage points respectively. Firefox eeked up 0.06 percentage points, while Internet Explorer fell 0.85 percentage points to a new low for the Microsoft browser.

It is hard to try and spin those numbers from the perspective of IE9 and Firefox 4. Net Applications puts the current Firefox 4 share at 1.68 percent, with IE9 lagging behind at 1.04 percent--up from 0.63 and 0.59 respectively last month for the beta or release candidate (RC) versions. Certainly, the larger month over month gain for Firefox 4 is a contributing factor, but the real issue behind the general decline of Internet Explorer seems to be the 0.54 percentage point drop in IE8--the first loss for that browser in its history.

Now, let's slice and dice the stats a little. There has been a fairly public debate between Ryan Gavin and the Internet Explorer team, and Asa Dotzler from the Mozilla camp. Asa and I also exchanged some tweets in relation to the spin on the launch day figures, and my article putting the launch figures in perspective. The crux of both debates comes down to whether IE9 is measured against the browser ecosystem as a whole, or whether it is viewed strictly as a function of Windows 7 and Windows Vista since those are the only platforms it is available for.

Narrowing the results to just the United States, and just the Windows operating system the picture shifts some in Microsoft's favor. In the US, across all versions of Windows, Internet Explorer as a whole gained share by 0.19 points to 72.44 percent, while Chrome and Firefox both declined--by 0.10 and 0.08 percentage points respectively.

To be honest, I think both Microsoft's and Mozilla's views are right. That is one of the funny (awesome, silly, impressive--depends on your perspective) thing about statistics. Was Firefox 4 downloaded more than Internet Explorer 9 on its launch day? Absolutely. Not even Microsoft can deny that. But, with three times the potential pool of PCs, how could it not be?

That isn't a slam of Firefox 4, or an endorsement of IE9. I am simply pointing out the obvious fact that it is difficult, and somewhat silly, to try to compare the two head to head. It's like comparing how many copies Microsoft sells of Office 2010 for Windows vs. Office 2011 for Mac OS X. The Mac OS X audience only makes up about five percent of PCs, compared with nearly 90 percent for Windows. Of course Office 2010 sells better.

Over time, the numbers could get foggier depending on how you spin them. Mozilla has pledged to pursue a more aggressive cycle of releasing major updates, so Firefox 4 could quickly become Firefox 5, then Firefox 6, Firefox 7, and so on before Microsoft ever gets around to launching Internet Explorer 10. So, Firefox 4 is crushing Internet Explorer 9 today, but when Firefox 5 comes out, that will quickly change.

The more accurate--or more important view--is the long term outlook for the browser as a whole rather than a head to head comparison of specific versions. In that view, Internet Explorer has seen a slow and steady decline--but so has Firefox. The "tortoise" in this race appears to be Chrome--slowly trudging along chipping away market share month by month.

As for the issue of Internet Explorer 9 vs. Firefox 4, I have an appointment scheduled in my calendar to compare notes with Asa after each browser has had a few months, and both vendors go through the process of pushing the browser through update channels. Check back in September and we'll compare notes.

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