It took Mozilla more than five years of concerted effort and a lucrative partnership with Google to dent Internet Explorer's dominance. But maybe it doesn't have to be so hard.
Courtesy of an antitrust case against Microsoft in the European Union, several small-fry browsers are getting a helping hand that could boost their efforts to attain relevance. At least as long as Europeans notice a particular scroll bar.
"The ballot represents an enormous opportunity for Maxthon," said Ron White, a spokesman for one of those relatively obscure browsers that will be brought to the attention of Europeans. "Even though the choice screen does its best to hide Maxthon and six other lesser-known browsers, it's still a safe bet that the ballot will bring Maxthon to the attention of hundreds of thousands of computer users who would otherwise never hear of it."
Through Microsoft's 2009 settlement of the EU antitrust case, the company will present a "ballot" screen with a choice of browsers to Windows users in the European Union--about 100 million of them, by the European Commission's estimate.
"We plan to begin a phased roll-out of the update across Europe the week of March 1," said Dave Heiner, Microsoft's deputy general counsel, in a recent blog post, and a Microsoft representative confirmed that the company has indeed begun issuing the browser choice update across European Union nations.
The European Commission welcomed the move: "This should ensure competition on the merits and allow consumers to benefit from technical developments and innovation both on the Web browser market and on related markets, such as Web-based applications."
Browser choice in action
Here's how it works. After a Windows Update change Microsoft has begun issuing, the choices appear to people with Internet Explorer set as the default browser. The choice screen shows the five most widely used browsers, in random order: IE, Firefox, Google's Chrome, Apple's Safari, and Opera. Next to the icons are links to install them or to get more information.
But tucked at the bottom of the EU browser options list is a scrollbar that reveals seven other browsers. Don't be surprised if you haven't heard of them, much less installed them.
They are GreenBrowser (download), K-Meleon (download), FlashPeak's SlimBrowser (download), Maxthon International's Maxthon (download), Avant Force's Avant (download), Fenrir's Sleipnir (download), and Flock (download Windows or Mac).
The only two to surface on NetApplications' monitoring of global Web browser use are Maxthon, with 1.2 percent share of browser usage in February, and Flock, with 0.06 percent.
Neither of these projects is entirely original, either: Flock is based on the same Gecko technology underlying Firefox, and Maxthon uses IE's Trident browser engine now (a second engine, the WebKit project used in Safari and Chrome, is being added to the next version of Maxthon).
It's hard to get a browser project off the ground, with or without a helping hand. In the last 15 years, browsers have moved from being curiosities that nerdish types use to see what's on the Internet to an essential part of the computing experience often used for hours a day.
Instead of being a mere window to the Web, browsers now are a foundation for applications. And the more powerful players in the market are moving fast--adding new features, concentrating on better performance, and trying to close security holes as fast as possible.
The second-tier players believe the EU browser choice will give them a leg up, though.
"Considering that going into this balloting, Maxthon has a market share of 1.21 percent, even a 1 percent shift would be a big difference," said Maxthon's White. "It's obvious who the two leaders are. The chart also shows that there's really not much difference among the four other browsers. It wouldn't take an awful lot for Maxthon to overtake Opera, Safari, or even the vaunted Chrome."
Maxthon, which claims second place after IE in China, now has a specific ambition from the European change. "What I'd like to see in the next six months is enough people select Maxthon that we can take Opera's place among the first five browsers on the ballot," White said.
Sleipnir, a browser from a company in Japan called Fenrir, has already seen a difference from the browser-choice screen.
"New downloads are increasing from this list," said spokesman Yasuhiro Miki. "We are very happy for this opportunity [for] users to gain more chances for browser choice," and as a result of the of the browser-choice screen, "we are thinking to cover finally all languages in Europe."
Flock, too, is happy with its new opportunity.
"Flock's existing market share has been generated almost entirely by organic word of mouth. It is likely that increasing users' awareness of choice in the browser market will increase the sampling of browsers," said Chief Executive Shawn Hardin.
The scrollbar worry
But he's among those worried about the browser choice page design.
"While we are very supportive of the EU's effort to give users more choice and open up competition, we believe that Microsoft's implementation of the final choice screen is flawed and could substantially undercut the EU's original intent and intended benefits," Hardin said. "If no changes to the choice screen design are made quickly, we estimate 58 percent of the browsers chosen (7 of 12) will only be discovered and considered for installation by a very small minority of users who receive the choice screen on their PC."
K-Meleon, which also uses Mozilla's Gecko engine but combines it with a native Windows interface, is experiencing a 30 percent increase in downloads. "There are quite some visits from browserchoice.eu," said a K-Meleon forum moderator called Guenter who's active in the project.
But Alex Tarantul, who also works on the K-Meleon project, shares Flock's concern about the horizontal scrollbar. He sees a vicious cycle: people mostly won't use the scrollbar, so lesser browsers won't be installed, so the browser choice screen will drop them on the assumption that there's little interest.
And Yannis Kargas, who writes extensions for K-Meleon, believes K-Meleon may actually be doing better than statistics indicate. "Unlike what most believe, K-Meleon is not a browser with very limited user base. Certainly, it has less users than the common or mainstream browsers but it isn't by any means an unknown or forgotten browser without real users," Kargas said.
At root of the problem, Kargas said, is browser identification text called the user-agent string. Because many Web sites check this string and reject browsers they don't support, many using browsers that are off the beaten track "spoof" this string to gain admittance. And some sites don't read the string correctly, for example believing any Gecko-based browser is Firefox.
"Unfortunately, many non-savvy users will not know that they simply need to change the user agent when encountering those Web sites, and they think the browser is flawed and eventually decide to use one of those 'popular' browsers because they are 'supported' or recommended on those Web sites," Kargas said, even though the browser actually is compatible.
FlashPeak also is unhappy with the scrollbar situation.
"We are tracking the number of downloads but so far, the numbers are fairly disappointing (a few hundred downloads per day for us). I was expecting a couple of thousands per day. But it's better than nothing," said company representative Stephen Cheng.
Several of these companies lack the resources of major browsers. Efforts to contact GreenBrowser and Avant representatives were unsuccessful.
But even for those of the lesser-used browsers that are well organized, the fight for relevance will be tough. For example, Opera, which already has a significant following in Europe, is is launching a publicity campaign based on the browser choice situation.
The EU will give a new opportunity for the curious to try new browsers. But even for the curious, brand familiarity matters. And when it comes to branding, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Firefox, and even scrappy Opera have a big lead.
Update 5:53 a.m. PST with comment from FlashPeak.