The New Browser Wars: How the browser ballot screen is changing web development

Patrick Woodcock

Since 1 March Internet Explorer users in Europe have been seeing Microsoft's "Browser Ballot" screen asking them to choose which internet browser to install.  The ballot screen was put in place by Microsoft as a result of an anti-trust case brought against them by the European Commission.

This is an interesting development as many people will not even be aware that they've been using an internet browser.  In 2008 Google's marketing team took a video camera onto the streets of Manhattan to ask the public what they thought a browser was.  Most of the interviewees had no idea, or thought a web browser was the same as a search engine.

Between the launch of the browser ballot screen on 1 March and 1 April, Internet Explorer usage has dipped by about 4.5% across the UK while Google's Chrome browser usage has had an 11.9% increase, according to StatCounter. Firefox has seen a 3.6% increase in usage while Opera, the company that prompted the investigation, has seen a 8.7% dip in usage despite reporting a doubling of users downloading their Opera browser.  Nearly half the dip in usage of Internet Explorer is from IE6 dropping by 46.9% to 4% of total browser usage, which is less than Safari, Chrome or Firefox.  This is good news for web designers and developers due to IE6's bugs, security flaws and lack of support for many of the newer web technologies.

It may be possible that the rise in popularity of Google Chrome is down to people confusing their web browser with their search engine. In a blog post about IE6 web designer Nick Pettit explains that "developers have made the bold assumption that your average IE6 user is capable of distinguishing between their web browser and the Internet".  To illustrate this the home page for Internet Explorer 8 uses language such as The next Internet has arrived, Upgrade your Internet Experience and Making your web even better, suggesting that "Microsoft markets its browser as the Internet itself", according to Nick.  This may further explain why people have been choosing Google's Chrome browser over Internet Explorer as they may not have been aware of using IE, but using Google is a familiar part of their web browsing experience.

This is an interesting development in the web as it means web developers need to be even more aware of browsers other than Internet Explorer.  However, the browser ballot has been criticized by some as being limited. This is because although there is a choice of 12 different browsers, there is only a choice of four different rendering engines.  The browser rendering engine is the part of the web browser that displays the actual text and images on the computer screen and is responsible for calculating where things go on a webpage.  Trident, the rendering engine that Internet Explorer uses, is used by six of the browsers available on the browser ballot screen.  Gecko is the rendering engine used by Firefox and three others which makes it the second most commonly used rendering engine. Webkit, used by Chrome and Safari, is currently leading the pack for performance and HTML5 support. Presto is used only by Opera.