Top web browsers 2020: Firefox stays afloat, Chrome hits 69% for first time

Even as Chrome hit a new record for browser usage in April, Firefox managed to actually grow just a bit.

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Top web browsers, December 2019

Microsoft's browsers last month surged to close the year with the highest user share since August 2018, giving its maker a morale boost just weeks before it is to deliver a totally revamped Edge.

According to data published Wednesday by metrics vendor Net Applications, Microsoft's December browser share — a combination of Internet Explorer (IE) and Edge — climbed 1.4 percentage points to 14.2%, the highest mark in all of 2019. The year's total user share increase of 1.8 points marked the first time since 2014 that Microsoft's browsers put in a positive January-to-December.

Over half of December's gain came from Edge, which added eight-tenths of a percentage point, reaching 6.8%, a record for a browser Microsoft will relaunch in two weeks. IE also climbed last month, adding six-tenths of a percentage point and rising to 7.4%, the most for that browser since August.

(On Jan. 15, Microsoft will begin replacing the homegrown version of Edge on Windows 10 with the new browser built on Google's technologies.)

Edge's increase bettered, proportionally, the accompanying December increase of Windows 10, and so the percentage of the latter's users relying on the browser ticked up to 12.3%, the best number since last summer. December may be the last month that Edge's portion of Windows 10's browser activity can be reliably pegged, what with the impending launch of the final "full-Chromium" version for Windows 7, which at the end of 2019 accounted for nearly 31% of all Windows. Although Windows 7 will receive its final security updates on Jan. 14 – except for businesses that pay Microsoft for the post-retirement Extended Security Updates, or ESU — there will be a sizable number of PCs globally running the OS after that date (an estimated 446 million, give or take). It's almost certain that some will dump IE for the new Edge.

But how much ground the new, Chromium-based Edge gains, if any, once it is in polished form remains unclear. Much will depend on how strong users' ties are to Chrome, whether IT admins will return their charges to Microsoft's browser and Google's reactions. How Edge plays out during 2020 will be among the year's more interesting enterprise stories.

IE fared well, too, as difficult to believe as that is. By Net Applications' numbers, IE accounted for 8.6% of all Windows browsing last month, its best mark since May. Although Microsoft has maintained IE on life-support, catering to those organizations that still need it to run specific web apps or intranet sites not worth refreshing, the browser's share will likely fall as the new Edge's rises: The remade Edge includes an IE mode, which should make the stand-alone Internet Explorer moot for most commercial customers. Another year like that and IE will be an afterthought run by fewer than 5% of Windows users.

It may be months, however, before an accelerated IE decline, if one occurs, becomes clear enough to fuel future forecasts of its final days.

Year-end recap: Microsoft's browsers gained 1.8 percentage points in 2019, representing a 14% increase in share.

The S.S. Firefox stays afloat

In December, Firefox recovered almost half the user share it lost the month prior; the browser ended the year at 8.4%, up two-tenths of a point from November.

Although that kept Mozilla's ship from slipping under the waves — something Computerworld feared was in the cards a month ago — Firefox's future remained more gloomy than glad. It spent the whole second half of 2019 under 9% — the six-month average was 8.5% — and all but one month of the year in single digits, a first (at least since when it was regularly gaining share as it nibbled at IE).

Computerworld's revised forecast — based, as usual, on the 12-month average of changes — now has Firefox slipping under 8% by April and falling to 7% about a year from now. And that's in the face of a small bump in December. The harder Mozilla works, it seems, at improving Firefox — it's easily the leader in the across-the-browser-market-bar-Chrome anti-tracking movement — the lower droops its user share. How depressing for its fans, users or not.

Year-end recap: Firefox lost 1.2 percentage points during 2019, representing a 13% decline in share.

Chrome sets consecutive loss record

During December, Chrome dropped half a percentage point, slipping to 66.6% and ending the year down that same amount from 2019's beginning. This was the first time since 2014 that Chrome lost share over the course of a year.

Last month also marked the first time Chrome had posted three consecutive months of losses (they totaled 1.8 percentage points), an even stronger signal than in November that Google's browser may have topped out.

There's certainly no danger that Chrome will suddenly find itself usurped by, say, Firefox or Edge, not when it accounted for two-thirds of global browser activity on personal computers last month. But it was impossible for Chrome's growth, which started seriously only in 2014, seven years after the browser's debut, to continue forever. Although it may be too early to say Chrome has peaked — the high-water mark thus far was 68.6% in July — declines over multiple months seem a worthwhile indicator.

This year's browser story should be the impact, if any, on Chrome from Microsoft's decision to recast Edge as a clone of the Google application. If swaths of enterprise IT decide to ditch Chrome and replace it with the Edge knock-off — for manageability reasons, Chrome could be threatened in the very long term. That has to be at the center of Microsoft's strategy.

A new Computerworld forecast now puts Chrome on a very gradual — half a percentage point a month — decline, with the browser dipping under 66% sometime in the spring of 2021.

Year-end recap: Chrome lost half a percentage point in 2019, representing a 1% decline in share.

Safari reclaims defectors

Elsewhere in Net Applications' data, Apple's Safari posted the fifth straight month of gains, adding seven-tenths of a percentage point to reach 6% in December. Opera Software's browser lost three-tenths of a point and slid to 1%.

Safari's increase came as macOS itself dipped to accounting for 11.1% of all desktop operating systems, a decline of half a point from November. In turn, that sent Safari's share of macOS for December soaring to 54.3%, its highest portion of that market since November 2017. (December was also the third straight month during which that metric increased.) Safari, which has also emphasized its privacy chops, particularly its anti-tracking capabilities, has demonstrated that Chrome can be vulnerable, at least in some spaces; as recently as May 2019, Safari accounted for just 35% of macOS-based browsing.

Year-end recap: Safari gained 2.3 percentage points during 2019, representing a 62% increase in share.

Year-end recap: Opera lost seven-tenths of a percentage points during 2019, representing a 43% decline in share.

Browser stats December 2019 IDG/Gregg Keizer

Safari boosted its user share by more than 60%, making Apple's browser the clear winner of 2019. Meanwhile, Opera and Firefox lost ground between January and December. (Data: Net Applications.)

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