The Great Web Browser War of 2017


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This post was original posted on Graydient Creative Blog

I have a confession to make: I use NetScape as my primary web browser. As in NetScape Navigator. Yes, I understand that it's been discontinued since 2008 and no one supports it anymore, but I've yet to find a browser that can outclass it. Okay, that's not true.

One look at Navigator and one can easily see why the thought of needing to support it would bring any web developer to tears. Having been out of development for almost ten years, NetScape has missed out on (in technology-time) centuries worth of advancements. So it makes sense that no one would want to use it today. But what about modern browsers? Why do some people prefer Chrome, Firefox, or Opera? Here is a totally fair comparison from someone who is totally biased towards Firefox.

Winning The Popularity Contest

Very few people use a bad product by choice. Therefore, the amount of people using a product is a fair way to judge how it compares against its counterparts. As of August 15, 2017, Google Chrome is leading the browser race by a large margin. According to StatCounter, Chrome is responsible for handling over 54% of web traffic, with Safari following at a distant second place at 14%. Surprisingly, third place goes to UC Browser, a mobile browser that is particularly popular in China. Sadly, Firefox falls way behind in fourth place, with less than 6% of the market share. However, these stats account for all platforms, combining mobile and desktop usage into a single set of data.

Desktop numbers tell a different story. Once again, Chrome takes the lead, this time with a massive 63%. In second place is Firefox, taking over Safari's 14%. The Windows and Mac defaults take third through fifth place, with Internet Explorer at 9%, Safari at 5%, and Microsoft's newcomer Edge at just under 4%.

thumps up tags

It wouldn't be a fair comparison if we just stopped there, however. Mobile devices account for over 54% of traffic on the web. And just like how the data for desktop usage is very different from the global percentages, mobile browsers are split very differently as well. First of all, despite having both an Android and iOS app, Firefox does not appear in StatCounter's rankings at all. Chrome's usage rates also drop, albeit not as drastically: Google Chrome still holds 50% of the market share. Given their higher ranks in the global statistics, it's no surprise that Safari and UC Browser takes up a bit more of the mobile market, with 17% and 16% respectively.

Winner: Chrome (No Surprise)

The Need For Speed

Let's get the obvious out of the way: speed. A big part of Chrome's popularity is due to how fast it is to open and navigate from site to site. However, it may be a surprise to learn that Chrome is not the fastest, even of the mainstream browsers. While my biased instincts are urging me to lie and say that Firefox is faster, alas, it is not. The biggest surprise here, is that the browsers that consistently rank the faster according to benchmarks are... the default browsers. Recently, with the release of Edge, Microsoft has been slowly easing its way back into the browser race.

According to a study in early 2017, Chrome was pitted against Opera and Microsoft Edge in multiple benchmark tests, and falls behind both in four of the five tests. Even Google's own benchmark, Octane 2.0, ranks Opera above Chrome. While this is just one test, there's one thing that's consistent among our research. There are two distinct types of articles: The ones stating the Chrome is the best "because it's fast," and ones with actual research and evidence backing up their claims. And whether you want to believe it or not, within the articles backed by research, Edge and Safari consistently ranks among the fastest of the bunch.

If you're really looking for speed and are willing to give up the other essentials of a web browser, like customizability, add-ons, and even a real UI, then Lynx might just be for you. Lynx is a terminal/command-line based browser that's compatible with Windows, Mac, Linux, and even MS-Dos. Being one of the oldest browsers currently in development, Lynx is not bogged down by modern technology like CSS, JavaScript, and even images, making it one of the fastest browsers available. But the command line interface is obviously not for everybody, so a great alternative is to, well... disable CSS and JavaScript in any other browser.

Winner: OS Defaults -- Edge

Cutting Edge Technology

Developers move fast. We have to if we want to keep up with the ever-increasing "speed of technology." Therefore, when a new feature comes out, we want it right away. We want to take advantage of all the resources we can, to make our websites look and behave the best that they possibly can. One thing that may be contributing the Edge and Safari's victory in the last race was their lack of additional features. CanIUse, a website the compares browser's compatibility with newer web technology, gives each browser a score based on how many features are supported. When it comes to full support, Firefox has a slight lead at 294. Chrome is close behind at 291, while Safari and Edge are slacking by more than 40 points. Chrome scores an additional 32 points for partially supported features, totalling 223, whereas Firefox has 24 partially supported features.

Bart Simpson writing "I will not fight the future."

HTML5 is a major part of today's web standards, and unfortunately, according to https://html5test.com/, no browser scores a perfect 555. Chrome comes closest, at 518, while Firefox is quite far behind at 474, putting it in third place. Sneaking into second with 478 points is Microsoft's new browser, Edge, while Safari once again falls behind with a measly 419. If HTML is the web's skeleton, JavaScript would be the muscles. It controls all the interactive parts of the web, making support for this vital to the success of any browser.

According to the ECMAScript compatibility chart (ECMAScript being the standardized JavaScript specifications), Firefox provides the best support for current and upcoming JavaScript version, with full support for the pre-2015 and post-2016 editions, and 97% support from ES2015. Safari has 99% support for both current and past standards, but it's 94% support for ES2016+ puts it in second place. Chrome's V8 engine falls behind Safari in all three categories, only matching the 94% support for the future. Despite having full support for ES4 (pre-2015), Edge's Chakra engine only supports 96% of modern JavaScript features and a pitiful 76% on ES2016+.

Winner: Chrome -- It really depends on what's more important. In reality, most new features won't see much use for a while, and those that do are pretty well supported already. Although Firefox outpaces Chrome in JavaScript support and full features support on CanIUse, it's not by much. Chrome and Firefox have pretty even scores, with the only outlier being Chrome's better support for HTML 5, so I've decided to give this one to Chrome.

Making It Yours

The key selling point to Firefox is its customizability. While Chrome's add-on store is higher in numbers, Firefox allows for more flexibility to their developers. This flexibility opens up the ability to fully change the appearance and behavior of your browser. Add-ons such as Stylish and Classic Theme Restorer makes it possible for Firefox on one computer to look like an entirely different browser on another. And one classic feature preventing Mozilla powerusers like myself from making the switch is "about:config." Almost every single setting used by the browser, even internal and experimental ones, can be found here.

An up and coming browser, Vivaldi, might be a threat to Mozilla's reign, however. Being built on top of Chrome, Vivaldi inherits Google's stability, but adds a layer of customizability that is comparable to Firefox's. Being barely a year old, Vivaldi is still cluttered with bugs and isn't quite ready for casual use, but has potential to be one of the best browsers in the near future.

Winner: Firefox

Portability

The biggest advantage of browsers like Chrome and Firefox is that they are cross-platform. Therefore, they are available on multiple devices and operating systems, from Windows, to Mac, to Android, and iOS. On the other hand, proprietary browsers like Edge and Safari limit you to a single platform. Syncing technology provided by Google and Mozilla ensures that users can keep their bookmarks and even their sessions intact when moving from one machine to another.

From my experience, Firefox provides a more seamless experience between multiple computers, even when going from Windows to Linux. With supports for bookmarks, browsing history, and add-ons, it's almost like having the same installation on both machines. However, when it comes to the transition to mobile, Chrome has a massive edge here. This is because nobody uses Firefox on mobile, including desktop Firefox users. As we've discovered, Firefox is non-existent in the mobile market, even with cross-platform applications. Because we owe so much of the web to mobile phones, Chrome wins here.

Winner: Chrome

Going Undercover

Privacy and security are at the top of everyone's minds today. We've all heard the stories of hackers and identity thieves accessing confidential personal information for malicious purposes. But many people don't stop to concern the vulnerabilities of their browser. The good news is, you're probably safe. According to an ITPro article published in July 2017, "At Pwn2Own 2017 [...] Edge came off as the least secure browser, with hackers successfully exploiting it five times. Chrome was the most secure as it wasn't hacked at all, while Firefox was beaten once. Safari was compromised 3.5 times."

However, when it comes to privacy, things change a bit. Being a proprietary web browser owned by the black hole of data that is Google, it's no surprise that Chrome tracks your every move. Firefox, on the other hand, takes its users' security and privacy more seriously, to the point where enabling private browsing allows users to be hidden from trackers completely. Other browsers take it a step further still, with Opera including a free VPN and the brand new browser, (Brave), comes with a built in ad blocker.

Hacker attacking internet

For those truly concerned with security and privacy, there is one browser that trumps all the others: Tor. Often associated with the Dark Web, Tor's reputation is unjustly tarnished for being used in shady and illegal transactions. Being a modified version of Firefox, which is already built with security and privacy in mind, Tor takes it up a notch by coming with preinstalled extensions that increase your privacy. But most importantly, the Tor web browser allows access to the Tor network, which obscures all connections through multiple relay connections. With these extra steps to conceal you identity, Tor comes at a cost. Performance is greatly hindered with this browser.

Winner: Tor (Firefox if we're going more mainstream)

Conclusion

There's a good reason Chrome is dominating the web browser market. With its speed, ease of use, and stability, Chrome is an easy choice for most users. However, there are other browsers out there, with advantages and disadvantages over Google Chrome. There are even niche browsers meant for very particular kinds of people. When it comes to choosing a browser, many people simply settle for what they're familiar with, and stick with it for years. But it's good to know what the differences are so you can make a better choice.

Spongebob character painting things with Chrome spray paint

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