What web browser did you use to reach this article? Do you know? A step further, do you know why you use the browser you use?
Most everyday computer users have their web browser chosen for them. On a Mac, it defaults to Safari; on an older Windows machine, it may be the age-old Internet Explorer. But deciding which web browser you employ to surf the Web shouldn’t be taken lightly. It may be the single piece of software you use most often!
The 2010s were a decade marked by the continuing rise of Google and the rocket-like ascent of the Chrome web browser. Google’s dominion over our web experience may not be changing anytime soon, but one thing is for sure: 2020 is the start of a new decade, and this decade is beginning with a whole lot more web browsing options than years ago.
A web browser is a personal preference, a piece of software you should be comfortable using. It shouldn’t get in your way; it should be fast, secure, and respectful of your privacy. It should be able to display websites consistently and correctly. And you should feel at ease in the user interface it provides. If your current web browser lacks any of these things, consider what other browsers may be able to offer.
In this article we will learn how the web browser landscape is changing as we enter 2020 and what considerations you should make when you install a browser and call it your own.
A Brief History of Web Browser Usage Stats
A look at statcounter.com’s awesome “Browser Market Share Worldwide” chart reveals a changing landscape of browser usage throughout the past decade.
In January 2010:
- Internet Explorer (IE) dominated market share at nearly 55% usage;
- The well-known alternative Mozilla Firefox was a fairly distant second at 31% usage;
- Up-and-comer Google Chrome was at less than 6% usage (!);
- And other options like Safari and Opera made up the bottom of the chart
In the middle of 2012, as Internet Explorer usage waned and Firefox already peaked, Google Chrome became the market leader. This breakthrough moment led to ever more adoption of Google’s flagship browser, and it hasn’t slowed down since.
In 2019, Chrome reached a monstrous 65% usage worldwide, far-and-away the most popular browser. Search and a market leading web browser are the crucial ingredients of Google’s dominance and neither is going anywhere anytime soon.
But did Chrome, indeed, peak in usage? And what other options exist now that didn’t before?
Brimming with Browser Choices
At such massive market share, it’s hard to argue that Chrome is anything but the undisputed king of the browsers. Still, many interesting developments have taken place in the past couple years.
First, Apple’s strong ecosystem has fostered an ongoing user base for its proprietary web browser, Safari. Safari’s continued updates and ease of use in the Mac operating system have made it a competent, widely adopted, and solid all-around browser. Its market share has grown from 14% to 17% since January 2018.
Another frontrunner, Mozilla’s continued efforts to promote and maintain its Firefox browser have kept it extremely relevant, if not particularly strong. Firefox holds a roughly 5% market share just as it did one year ago.
Perhaps most significantly, Google’s own open source Chromium project has paved the way to an assortment of lesser-known but intriguing web browsing alternatives. These browsers run like Chrome, share developer tools with Chrome, and enjoy generally excellent compatibility with web technologies like Chrome. But they’re not the same.
Lifewire’s article, “Chrome vs. Chromium: What’s the Difference?” provides a full description of what Chromium is and how it differs from Chrome.
In a nutshell, Chrome is Google’s proprietary browser, while Chromium is the open source branch of that. Chromium as an open source project means the code is free for all to use and build upon – even if that means building a Chrome alternative.
Even Microsoft made the not-so-easy decision to rebuild its Edge browser on top of Chromium. So far, so good: The brand new Edge is fast, privacy-friendly, and well integrated into Windows.
Where Opera used to be the only “yeah, I’ve heard of that, but who uses it?” web browser, we now have several. But let’s not poke too much fun. Chromium-based browsers are legitimate “contender-level” browsers built on the same fabric and underlying code of Chrome. They’re familiar, performant, and compatible with Chrome’s suite of ready-to-go extensions. Beyond that, each has its own take(s) on what really matters in the web browsing experience.
My personal top picks for Chromium-based contenders include:
- Opera – well-established software and user base; host of unique features including integrated messenger support and a screenshot tool
- Brave – privacy-oriented, tracker blocking by default; built-in cryptocurrency (Basic Attention Token) with a user-empowering spin on advertising
- Vivaldi – highly customizable, interesting features like built-in note taking. Maintained by an independent Scandinavian team
Even smaller (but still interesting!) names include Puffin Browser, Epic Browser, Tor Browser, and quite a few more.
With so many choices, what should go into your decision on which browser to use?
Key Considerations in Browser Selection
Modern web browsers are well developed and widely compatible with modern web coding standards, so selecting a browser depends on your specific needs and values. Which user interface feels most natural to you? Which gives you the set of options and settings to best satisfy your desire to customize? How much does privacy matter?
Let’s break down these major considerations when picking a web browser for you:
- Cross-Browser Compatibility
- Extensions and Functionality
- User Interface
Web browsers are software, each running on different code. This means they start up differently, load websites differently, and interpret web developer code differently. But in these ways, the gap has shrunk. Modern web browsers are more cross-compatible than ever before.
The website caniuse.com compares web development technologies and how compatible they are with different browsers. All three of today’s market leading browsers – Chrome, Firefox, and Safari – run modern web code to a high standard. That is, web developers creating your website can expect the code they write to be interpreted by these browsers reliably and consistently.
Whether or not you actively develop websites and push for the latest coding standards, having a browser with fewer graphical glitches and errors that actually displays websites correctly isn’t just a benefit, it’s something to expect.
“Data is the new oil,” they say, and companies like Google and Facebook have been notoriously free to gather data on users to the benefit of their bottom line. While some Chrome users view the transmission of data as the tradeoff for “free” and excellent software, others seek a more privacy-oriented alternative.
The concern is ad tracking. Everything we do online leaves a footprint, personally identifiable or not. Every search and every click can potentially be stored, packaged, and sold among data brokers. This data can be used to feed you relatable, targeted ads, or it can be used deviously, recklessly placing your personal information in the wrong hands. When you give up your data, it’s out of your control.
These fears – this awareness – has made privacy a key differentiator and selling point for web browsers looking to gain a foothold over Chrome.
A 2018 Wired article declared Safari the “Good Privacy” browser. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s new Edge has three clear and distinct privacy levels you can pick from, in addition to a “commitment” to the user’s privacy. And browsers like Brave have ad and tracking blocked by default as an integral feature.
The winner for privacy is frankly anything not-Google Chrome. Ads and tracking are so core to Google’s business that expecting Chrome to be a frontrunner in terms of privacy is far fetched. For the Web user who really prioritizes their privacy, turning to Edge or Brave would be wise.
Cloudwards.net tested a suite of browsers and concluded that Vivaldi, Opera, and Brave rounded out the top three browsers for pure speed. The more-popular Firefox (#4) and Chrome (#5) trailed the smaller but nimbler cousins.
PaperStreet builds websites for performance as a standard part of our process, but the web browser one uses to visit our sites can speed up or slow down the experience. In regards to speed, all of the new Chromium-based browsers are fine choices.
Just like a user’s operating system can have security holes, so too can their web browser. On one hand, the most popular browsers like Chrome get more eyeballs and code updates and thus more rigorous testing. On the other hand, the most popular browsers are the most targeted by attackers since successful intrusion could prove more impactful to a wider user base.
Chromium and Chrome are both very frequently updated, heavily used and scrutinized. They are likely the best choices for generally secure browsing.
However, the truth is that sound security is almost entirely dependent on the user. If you often lurk the shadiest corners of the Web (which PaperStreet’s clients certainly do not), you can expect more challenges to your machine’s security or antivirus measures. If instead you follow good practices, employing a mix of strong passwords, keeping a skeptical eye out for phishing attempts, knowing the kinds of websites to avoid, and perhaps most crucial, keeping your web browser updated, your attack risk is greatly reduced.
Extensions and Functionality
Sometimes counter to security are the numerous add-ons and extensions you can install in new browsers. Indeed, these pre-packaged add-ons can bring tremendous benefits for a web user’s quality of life, adding efficiency or features the vanilla browser lacks. But one should be discerning about which extensions are installed, as each is also an attack surface that could be vulnerable if the plugin’s code can be exploited.
Chrome’s Web Store is chock full of great extensions. As selection and breadth of extensions goes, it wins hands down. Surely this is no surprise – with the largest market share, it also has the most active developers who want their software used by the biggest audience.
Firefox Add-ons try to compete, but the selection is smaller.
“What about those up-and-coming browsers?” you might have asked. I’m glad you did: Any Chromium-based browser, including Microsoft’s new Edge, can also install extensions from Chrome’s store. Occasional hiccups and incompatibilities can occur, but in my experience, these browsers run Chrome extensions as expected.
While at times it can be a challenge to pinpoint the differences between a host of competitive and capable browsers, each browser provides a different interface, or layout, for users to interact with.
Some browser design patterns have become standard. Address bar and bookmarks at the top; hamburger menu with options in the top-right. But how much can you change that organization? What options matter to you? Which browser has a loading bar that just resonates with you, or the color scheme that just feels right?
The truth is, interface design is just as much art as it is science, and a healthy amount of subjectivity is involved in deciding which browser does it “best.” But having options is a plus, and Vivaldi offers plenty in regards to customization.
It’s About You
A common theme of this article is that to find the best web browser for you, you must understand your values and tendencies as a web user. What do you really care about? Ultimately this will guide you to the right software.
I encourage you to experiment with a handful of browsers. Download, install, and find what speaks to you. They’re free, after all.