Why Do Web Browsers Matter?

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The Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) Beta recently released by Microsoft reintroduces the software giant into the browser wars, but why are browsers worth fighting over when they’re essentially offered as freeware? Of the three major browsers used worldwide, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chrome, each provider possesses a different mandate for browser hegemony.

With the increasing popularity of Firefox and the emergence of Chrome as a real threat, Microsoft has had no choice but to retrench and crank out IE9 in order to stay relevant. To be fair, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer still holds onto over 60% of the browser market share according to Internet statistic firm Net Market Share, however, this is down significantly from the near monopoly that it enjoyed for the greater part of the past decade.

Although its browser does not directly generate revenue, Microsoft offers it to vertically integrate your computer experience. Take for example this scenario: a computer user logs onto a PC running the Windows operating system (OS), surfs the web on IE and does a search or two on Bing. By controlling every facet of your computer experience, Microsoft can assure quality between all these moving parts and produce an echo chamber of value for its products, namely, its bread and butter Windows OS.

Apple’s Safari browser serves a similar function to IE, but because of Apple’s smaller overall hardware footprint, it only checks in at about 5% of all browsers used.

Firefox, IE’s chief competitor clocking in at about 23% of the browser market share, is based on the source code of the original Netscape Navigator that the first iterations of IE helped to snuff out. The browser was developed on the premise of simply building a better browser for all and quickly became a darling for computer geeks and others who were tired of the buggy, crash-prone IE. The browser was kept open source, thus allowing any programmer complete access to its code in order to tweak and improve the browser as they saw fit.

However, the Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit set up to guide the Firefox open source project does not operate on just peanuts and goodwill alone. They make money, to the tune of about $79 million in 2008, via its search referral program. Although revenue is generated from a variety of partners, Mozilla’s primary stream of income comes from its partnership with Google, a deal set to last until at least 2011.

For Google, a company built on search and a host of web-based applications, building a web browser was a no-brainer. The idea behind Chrome was that if users were provided a faster browser they could perform more searches within a given amount of time. More searches means more money for Google’s web-based advertising.

Perhaps taking a cue from Microsoft, Google developed its Android operating system to bring the vertically integrated web experience to mobile devices. Gartner, an information technology research company, pegs Android OS as the second most popular mobile operating system at a projected 17.7% in 2010, well ahead of Windows’ projected 4.7% market share in the mobile market.

Android OS was only the beginning. Google’s other operating system is the fast, lightweight Chrome OS designed to streamline the computer-internet experience. Although Chrome OS is being primarily marketed for netbooks, it’s only a matter of time before Google sets its eyes on the larger PC market. This inevitability lies at the heart of Microsoft’s revamp of its archaic browser. IE9 was essentially the first shot in an even larger battle to come — the operating system wars.

What browser do you use and will you give Internet Explorer 9 a shot?