The modern browser wars began in earnest in 2004, when Mozilla Firefox challenged Internet Explorer's complete and utter market dominance, successfully growing from zero to several hundred million users in less than five years.
Over the past decade, a lot has changed: Mobile devices now outnumber traditional PCs, and the desktop browser has become much less important than mobile web clients and apps. Apple's mobile Safari and Google's Chrome are now major players, Mozilla is in a time of major transition, and Microsoft is still paying for its past sins with Internet Explorer.
And in 2014, all those players seem to have dug in to well-entrenched positions. Here's an end-of-year status report for each one.
Google Chrome: on a path to world domination
Google, it turns out, would love to have the dominant market share that Internet Explorer did back in its heyday, without the performance and security nightmares associated with IE.
The company is using a move straight out of the Microsoft playbook from the 1990s, using its dominant free services (Google Search, Gmail, and YouTube, in particular) to push the Chrome browser, and adding capabilities that require Chrome apps, which are designed to create the same type of lock-in that Microsoft's ActiveX enforced in the early days of the Web, minus the horrible security flaws.
If that screenshot reminds you of "Best viewed in Internet Explorer 6," you're not alone.
The strategy seems to be working. While other browsers are remaining flat or declining in share, Chrome is still ascending, albeit more slowly. According to Net Applications, Chrome was in use on 20.6 percent of desktop and notebook PCs and Macs at the end of 2014, up from 16.4 percent at the beginning of the year. At StatCounter, which measures usage, Chrome crossed the 50 percent mark this year and now accounts for more web-based activity than Internet Explorer and Firefox combined.
Internet Explorer: still no respect
Microsoft no longer has to apologize for its flagship browser, as it did in 2006, when IE boss Dean Hachamovitch admitted "we messed up." (Hachamovitch announced this week that he's leaving Microsoft, having left the IE team roughly a year ago.)
The company has been remarkably quiet about its plans for Internet Explorer in Windows 10. Indeed, the desktop-only browser in the current Windows 10 Preview feels like a placeholder, and there are persistent rumors that big changes are in store next year. (See this September report from my ZDNet colleague Mary-Jo Foley about the rumored next release, code-named Spartan.)
Microsoft's biggest problem at this point is maintaining compatibility with older IE versions that don't hew to modern standards. This year the company announced plans to drop support for all but the latest version of Internet Explorer, a policy that would bring it into parity with most of its rivals. The trouble is, that policy doesn't take effect until January 2016.
Meanwhile, Internet Explorer is still despised by developers, who rightfully resent having to build in hacks for all those old but still supported versions. Despite the fact that recent versions of Internet Explorer are remarkably standards-compliant, there are still sites that don't work properly in IE, usually because whoever built the site designed it to run on Chrome or Safari and didn't even bother testing it with Internet Explorer.
Mozilla: an uncertain future
For the past three years, Mozilla has been living high on the hog, thanks to a search deal with Google that paid $300 million a year for the past three years.
A couple of tidbits worth noting: In the immediate aftermath of the Google deal's expiration, Mozilla has added a solicitation for contributions on its landing page.
There's nothing wrong with that move, but the timing suggests that the Yahoo deal isn't as lucrative as Mozilla needs to fund its big dreams, especially after the unexpected announcement two weeks ago of its intentions to resume development of Firefox for iOS.
Safari: Apple's house browser
In the beginning, Safari was introduced on the Mac as a way for Apple to break its dependence on Internet Explorer.
And then a funny thing happened: As mobile devices became more important, mobile Safari on iOS became more important than its older sibling on the Mac. Apple has sold far more iPhones and iPads than MacBooks and iMacs at this point, and sales of mobile devices are continuing to grow faster than Macs.
Best of all for an increasingly privacy-conscious world, Apple has configured Safari's defaults to block third-party cookies (thus eliminating a major source of tracking) and send a Do Not Track signal by default.
Opera: hanging on
For several months this year I've used Opera as my default desktop browser. The experiment was designed to see whether an independent alternative based on the Webkit rendering engine could succeed.
Overall, it hasn't been a completely unsuccessful experiment. There's a lot to like in the new Opera, although a few key features, including the ability to sync bookmarks and passwords, are still missing. More importantly, some sites that were designed to work best with Chrome or Safari fail in mysterious ways in Opera. The failure rate is worse than with Internet Explorer 11, in my experience.
Unfortunately, the most messed-up pages are those I see when I try to use Opera to visit ZDNet. In particular, our new commenting system is almost impossible to use with Opera. That means I either have to use another browser or ... stop reading comments. Decisions, decisions.