Once the undisputed champ of the Web browsing market, Internet Explorer now must share the ring. The unlikely-named contenders include Firefox, Opera, Safari, Sea Monkey, and Konqueror. Indeed, IE has seen its previous 95 percent share of the market slip to between 80 and 85 percent, thanks to these new browsers.

Fortunately, sorting through the teeming mass of Web browsing options in search of a standard for your business usually means focusing on a few key criteria.

IE may have lost some of its market share in the past few years. But for a business that already has help desk familiarity with the browser and systems tested to work with it, sticking with the Microsoft solution makes sense. On the other hand, because Microsoft no longer supports IE on the Macintosh, Mac shops have a clear reason to go with Safari, the standard Apple browser. Meanwhile, companies with an Open Source orientation, or those that support Windows, Mac and Unix-variety systems should consider Firefox as the best cross-platform solution.
“For an organization, the most compelling reason to switch to Firefox or stay with IE may simply be ease of support,” says Adrian Roselli, senior usability engineer with Algonquin Studios, a software and Web applications firm in Buffalo, N.Y. who maintains a browser encyclopedia online at Evolt.org.

Supporting more than one

Many companies have given up on the search for a standard browser and simply support more than one solution, Roselli says. “When it really comes down to it, if the browser consistently supports standards, then there is no real difference,” he says, a software and Web applications firm in Buffalo, N.Y. ”. “They can only differentiate themselves on user interface and perhaps other, unnecessary features.”

To keep things simple, experts suggest that a single browser standard for internal company usage will minimize Web development, testing time and effort inside a firm. But for anyone creating applications facing the open Internet, it's important to keep in mind that applications being added to the site could be accessed by customers using different types of Web browsers.

Market share

Statistics compiled by Browser News, a website that tracks the browser market, show that IE's latest browser currently maintains somewhere between 56-80 percent of the browser market. Gecko, the underlying technology for Firefox, Mozilla, Sea Monkey, and related Web browsing software, finds a healthy niche with between 7  and 35 percent of Web user’s attentions.

The wide variety in usage estimates underscores the complexity of settling on a single software standard in your firm, and point to the direction many companies have taken – in using more than one browser. “I used to think only one browser would survive the race, but IE has seen some of its market share eroded by Firefox,” Roselli points out.

A study of the browser market released by Forrester Research, the Cambridge, Mass. market research firm, reports that 30 percent of Web users who switched browsers last year moved to Firefox.

Choice comes down to features

Choosing between IE 6 and its upcoming 7 release or Firefox and its many relatives comes down to personal taste.

Tabbed browsing has become a must for the regular Web user. Strong print and history tracking features can also make Web browsing easier. Forrester lists pop-up blocking, security and browser speed as its top three user features. User-defined style sheets, auto-completes in the address bar, external search engine integration with sites such as Google and the Wikipedia, spell checkers and even real-time weather reports might show up as big needs for certain users.

Just keep in mind: One user’s key feature is another’s frill.

“If I poll my clients, I get the sense that everything from RSS support to toolbars are frill,” Roselli says. “Some of them don't even know they have pop-up blocker support built in now, and if I asked if they wanted it, they'd note that they don't see many pop-ups, so it would be frill to them.”