Shawn Douglas

Thursday - Nov 24, 2011

Expanding broadband Internet access in US“…it’s important to note that the browser is designed to be somewhat behind the state of the art, and [it] makes up for it by its reach.”

- Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist

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When you think of the word “Internet,” what immediately comes to mind? Perhaps it’s your favorite website. Maybe you think of a social media tool like Facebook. For others the Internet is synonymous with ideals like freedom of expression and freedom to information. Those in the tech industry may talk about concepts like voice over IP or organizations like the W3C. And on occasion, someone may respond with a rare correlation: the Web browser.

Yes, the humble Web browser — utilized by most every person who has anything to do on the Internet — is regularly overlooked, not because it’s useless, but rather because it’s ubiquitous. For all but those without an Internet connection, one of the most used programs aside from an email client is a browser. As cloud-based applications and the Web-based Gmails of the world continue to see growth, the browser is becoming more integral to online activities than ever.**

Take for example the growing number of online services at your fingertips. You can pay your credit card bill online. You can order flowers, make hotel reservations, buy plane tickets, and manage your bank account from the Internet. Want to create and share spreadsheets or text documents online with cloud-based Google Docs? Most if not all of these activities require an important piece of software: the Internet browser. Choosing which browser you use to do these activities can sometimes be nerve-racking, however.

At their core, most Web browsers are the same. The standard browser allows you to go to your home page, go back a page using the “Back” button, and bookmark a site for future use. This sort of functionality is expected no matter the browser. Of course, this inevitably leads to the question “with so many similar options out there, how does one decide which browser to use?”

For those who are relatively new to Internet technology, the answer is usually this: choose one that’s both well-supported and stable. This typically means using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Apple’s Safari browser. These two browsers have long been a part of the industry, and despite any criticism they receive, they are supported and stable browsers that an Internet newbie needs while learning to use the ‘net.

Yet change is always occurring in the browser industry. Take for example the recent news that when combining both mobile and desktop markets, the behemoth that was Internet Explorer has now fallen below 50 percent market share, compared to its former glory of over 95 percent in 2004. What’s taking Internet Explorer’s place? According to the same report Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari browsers are chomping up market share. Mozilla’s Firefox browser has also had an impact. Why? They tout rapid page loads, standards compliancy, and quality Web rendering; Internet users are being won over in the process. These improvements — coupled with greater support — signify more powerful and stable options for not only those new to the ‘net but also to long-time veterans looking for a change.

Safari in particular has garnered many converts, not just in the desktop market but also in the mobile browser market, which brings up another important point about Web browsers as vital Internet tools: mobile devices are changing how we utilize the Internet, and with these mobile devices come new methods of browsing. The mobile market is booming, so much so that now 25 percent of the U.S. population is using a smartphone as their primary device to browse the Internet.

This sort of adoption means greater demand for mobile Web browsers. Enter Safari, Google’s Android browser, and Opera’s Mini/Mobile browsers. Even upstarts like the Dolphin browser — which recently surpassed 10 million users — are seeking to bring new ways to view Internet content to smaller screens.

What does all this mean for you, the reader? The Web browser on your desktop or mobile device may seem as ubiquitous as the bathroom in your dwelling, but your browser shouldn’t be dismissed as a static mean to an end. Rather, the Web browser should be your friend, which grows and changes with a growing and changing Internet. Why not:

* Try a new browser for a few months and see if you like it. Did you know most browsers allow you to install add-ons and extensions to make your online experience more enjoyable? Examples include the popular Adblock Plus for Firefox, Chrome, and other browsers; CleanPage for Internet Explorer; and Shareholic for most major browsers.

* Did you know that the ancient Internet Explorer 6 is still used by 7.5 percent of the world’s Internet users? If your parents are using it, participate in Update Your Parents’ Browser Day on Friday, November 25.

Most of all, remember that the humble Web browser is your travel companion on your journey across the wide expanse of the Internet; treat it well.

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Further reading:

* Chrome Extensions
* Firefox Add-ons
* Internet Explorer Add-ons
* Opera Add-ons
* Safari Extensions

** To be fair, despite the strong growth of the likes of Gmail and Hotmail, the folks at CampaignMonitor are reporting that (according to their internal numbers) market share for Web-based email surprisingly lost about four percent of its market share from May ’09 to May ’11, likely due to both the exodus of users from AOL and Yahoo! Mail and the rapid growth of the mobile email client.

Photo via Johan Larsson, Flickr Creative Commons

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