Microsoft is expected to share details about Internet Explorer 9 at its upcoming MIX10 conference, and industry watchers say the forthcoming release could help the software giant put part of its embattled browser past behind it.
"People love to hate Microsoft, and they are usually very techie types and early adopters that see flaws in engineering and strategy," says Sheri McLeish, an analyst covering information and knowledge management at Forrester Research. "Microsoft bundled IE with Windows, which added to its very long and dramatic history with the hubbub around Netscape, for example. But the browser market epitomises the company's challenges as it looks to improve market share and faces a lot of dislike and distrust in terms of Microsoft's competitive nature."
Microsoft in the past years suffered several injuries during the browser battles, but the software giant could be looking to save face with IE 9. Industry watchers expect Microsoft to reveal details about IE 9 at its MIX10 design and developers conference. The actual technology most likely won't be generally available for a year or more, McLeish says, but Microsoft could win over skeptics by including support for emerging standards such as HTML 5, while still providing customers their choice of browsers.
"Microsoft is urging customers to upgrade to IE 8 because the company recognizes it is important to have the latest browser, which was illustrated by the very public Chinese hacking of Google, using IE 6," McLeish says. "It has been well-circulated that Microsoft will be supporting HTML5, and it has been widely criticised for not supporting it to date, but it is not an official standard yet."
Yet competitor Google is pushing HTML5 as part of its Chrome browser, which makes Microsoft appear less "leading-edge" and behind in browser technology.
"Silverlight and Flash are still much more predominant," McLeish says. "From Microsoft's perspective, they are moving forward to appease critics, but that doesn't mean that HTML5 will be the new default approach."
Though specific numbers vary, several different sources report that Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser has been losing market share for several years, mostly to Firefox but now also in smaller part to Google's Chrome.
According to February 2010 figures from W3Schools.com, Microsoft IE 6, IE 7 and IE 8 currently hold about 35% of the browser market, while Firefox claimed 46.5% market share. Google Chrome had 11.6% market share, while Safari topped out at 3.8% and Opera garnered just more than 2% of the browser market. W3Schools notes that its data reflects usage among people with an interest in web technologies, who tend to be more interested in using alternative browsers than the average user.
Other figures released in February by Janco Associates put Microsoft IE at the head of the pack with about 65% market share, still a loss from more than 80% in 2007. Janco Associates reported that Firefox market share remained mostly flat, declining slightly to 17%. At the same time, market share for Google's browser grew to 6% while Safari increased to 1.39%. Janco also used the report to declare Netscape as "officially dead."
McLeish suggests that if Microsoft does reveal details and launch a beta of IE 9 in the coming weeks that is well received by early adopters, Microsoft could win back some market share from Firefox and Chrome, especially the latter considering Google is facing similar criticism for bundling browser and operating system.
"Google is also being criticised for having too much control over the experience, as both the operating system and the browser are named Chrome, which is also a bit confusing for consumers," she says. "It could also be seen as insulting to Microsoft, which was forced to decouple the browser and OS, but if Microsoft can get customers using its browser then it can promote other products in the Microsoft world, such as Bing for search."