[Author's Note: This article has been updated to correct my assertion the Microsoft Silverlight is only compatible with Internet Explorer. According to the Silverlight FAQ "Silverlight is supported by all major browsers on both Mac OS X and Windows, and with Moonlight on Linux as well."]
The latest numbers are out and the main story revolves around Google Chrome continuing to climb in market share, and Microsoft Internet Explorer continuing to fall. In fact, IE has dropped below 60 percent market share for the first time--fueled by a debatable perception that IE is less secure.
At one point Microsoft was able to squash the rival Netscape browser and essentially monopolize the Web browser market by virtue of the bundling of IE with Windows. In 2003, Microsoft enjoyed 95 percent market share--with the remaining five percent chalked up to users of other operating system platforms since IE is a Windows-only browser.
Microsoft still has just under 60 percent of the browser market--a significantly larger portion than any other single browser. IE has more than twice as much of the market as the second-place Firefox, which has nearly a quarter of the browser market.
Google's Chrome browser is in third place behind Firefox, but at 6.73 percent it has only about a tenth of the market that Microsoft still controls. However, Chrome has almost quadrupled market share in only a year. As the nascent new kid on the block, Chrome's growth is impressive.
With more than half of the market to itself, and ten times the share of upstart Chrome, does Microsoft even have a reason to care about these numbers? In a nutshell, yes--for two reasons.
First, is the consistency of Microsoft's decline. A drop of less than a percent might not be cause for concern if it were a statistical anomaly, but when it's a statistical certainty quarter after quarter, and year after year those small drops add up.
The bottom line is that Microsoft apparently doesn't have an answer--at least not yet--to reverse IE's fortunes and recapture its dominant role. Right now, IE is riding on the coattails of its former glory, and unless Microsoft does something to change that, competing browsers will eventually overtake it by attrition.
The second--and more important--reason for Microsoft to be concerned is that as it loses browser market share it also loses browser influence. Web developers have complained for years that Microsoft has its own way of doing things with IE. Well, when you have 95 percent market share you can get away with that and developers have no choice but to toe the line and comply. However, when your competitors have an equal share of the market, they also have an equal share of the influence.
For example, Microsoft would love for Silverlight to replace Adobe Flash as the de facto platform for developing animated, engaging, interactive Web-based applications. While both are cross-platform solutions with similar capabilities, Flash is much more established and ubiquitous than Silverlight. As Microsoft's browser share declines, so does the leverage it has to push Silverlight.
Microsoft weighed in on the Web video standard issue last week, siding with Apple in declaring that IE9 will only support H.264 video and HTML5. Two years ago, that might have been enough to drive a nail in the coffin of any competing alternatives, but today the browsers that will not support H.264 have almost as much sway on the market as Microsoft.
Perhaps IE9 will be the browser that turns things around. Maybe Microsoft will do a better job in the future fighting the battle of public perception and demonstrating the security weaknesses and lack of capabilities or performance in competing browsers. Probably not, but it could happen.
Until or unless that occurs, though, Microsoft needs to get comfortable with its new, less influential role as merely just another browser, rather than THE browser.