A look at browser versions and market share in a real-world scenario

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Here at the Factory we pride ourselves on building high-quality products at a breakneck pace for some big name brands.  Our team is a mix of incredibly gifted HTML/CSS, JavaScript, mobile, and application developers who’ve honed their skills through sheer perseverance, forging new paths through the digital wilderness that is the post-web-2.0 world.  As we push the limits of technology and visual design, we are constantly making sacrifices in our quest to reach the widest possible web audience.  The technorati will know exactly what I’m talking about: the web browser landscape is a minefield of partial or no support for the “standards” recommended by our friends at the W3C.

Now, I’m not here to complain about the fragmentation of the web browser market – far from it.  We’re a very happy group of technology professionals, and I’m truly grateful for the opportunities afforded by working on the bleeding-edge of web technology.  This is my chosen craft, and like all artisans I’m happy to face new challenges; not every new tool fits perfectly in the hand.  It takes a lot of watchful, focused time and energy to anticipate change and ride the wave of new technologies.  I’m here instead to share an interesting bit of “intel” from a recent campaign.

Google Chrome and The New World Order

I happened to be reviewing analytics around a campaign we launched a couple of days ago and decided to check out the web browser numbers recorded on a Facebook tab application.  First, a little background on the app: it’s a Flash-based “game” that is linked from a Facebook brand page that allows users to submit content (in order to enter for a chance to win some goodies.)  Because it’s Flash, it’s not really mobile-friendly of course, but that was our spec and we’re happy with the finished product.  Because it’s not mobile-friendly, we’re not seeing any Mobile Safari or Chrome Mobile traffic to speak of.  This provides a bit of clarity that we wouldn’t normally get in a typical micro-site or mobile-enabled situation – we can see what browsers are popular on the desktop without a tedious drill-down into specific user-agents and such.  So let’s dive in.

When I clicked on the link to view the browser breakdown, my heart initially sank – over half of our users were running 1 browser.  My assumption was that I’d see a big Internet Explorer population (IE being the most difficult of platforms to support on the desktop as described here, here, here, and across the internet at large – about 24 Million examples).  But I was absolutely wrong; it turns out that the majority…no… the vast majority of users who’ve visited this site (quite a few unique visitors in just 2-3 days) are running an up-to-date, latest-and-greatest-technology browser.  As the graph below illustrates, Chrome and Firefox have successfully infiltrated the quotidien, mainstream web user’s life.

A snapshot of browser market share from visitors to a Facebook application

A real screenshot of a family member's Internet Explorer window...yikes.

A real screenshot of a family member’s Internet Explorer window…yikes.

 

And why not?  Google and Mozilla have crafted the best experiences for us, the Internet population.  They both offer extensions and the cutting-edge features (like audio, video, and animation) that we all crave.  It’s a part of the HTML5 revolution evolution that’s changing the way we use the web.  It’s no surprise that users got tired of seeing popups, virus-infected sites, and “broken” web sites that were pervasive in the vacuum of the mid-2000’s.  Without these kinds of innovations, we’d be stuck with a tiny browser experience showing 10-year-old web interfaces with no finess.

This was good news, and this fact alone could fill an entire blog post.  What I discovered next, however, will become a significant business impact in the next 12 months here at the Factory.  I decided to drill-down on that sliver of Internet Explorer users (again, dreading what I’d find) and see what version that population had chosen as their “daily driver” browser.  Again, I was floored: Internet Explorer 8 and 9 are our new target platforms, not the aging IE7 or (worse) IE6.  As the image below illustrates, IE7 and below are now less than 4% of our total user base.  In fact, IE6 is completely absent.  And our friend IE10 (boasting almost-complete support for all that lovely HTML5 and CSS3 magic ) is already making an appearance.  IE9 already has decent support for the newest, coolest features.  The Pareto principle doesn’t apply to our shrinking 4% population – we can now focus on our 80% and craft “gracefully-degraded” experiences for the (new) 20%.

Internet Explorer version breakdown

Looking Forward

The significance of this new information is many-fold.  As we continue to grow our web business, I’ll be ajusting our estimates and timelines lockstep with our technology support; fewer differences among browser features means less cost in developing, testing, and supporting our clients;  now we can put that effort into building even cooler, more exciting experiences for our users.  Mobile support can now be a first-class citizen, since many mobile browsers support the newest “hotness” that HTML5 and CSS3 have to offer.  And our team can decommission entire machines devoted to testing those old browsers, saving real money and support costs – a serendipitous opportunity to be ever-“greener”, ever-leaner, and more agile.

Re-reading what I’ve put together so-far, I have to balance some of my optimism: this is one small example and just one of many user populations that we craft and manage.  That said, I believe I can take some good news back to my team, my Leadership, and our clients: we can deliver the latest technology without alienating the majority of our potential users.  And I hope that this post has armed you, dear reader, with some good information as a developer, stakeholder, or end-user.  At the end of the day, this kind of progress helps us all share our photos, update our status, pay our bills online, and file our taxes in minutes (instead of hours).  And that leaves more time for real-world projects and cherished moments with our friends, families, and colleagues.

Be well,

Jeff Hampton
Director, Technology