Recently, African IT billionaire Mark Shuttleworth announced that Google Chrome or its open-source cousin, Chromium, is likely to replace Firefox as the default browser in Ubuntu Linux. While this is unlikely to happen for the next major release of the Linux distribution, it is already scheduled to take place in version 12.04.
Shuttleworth believes that since Google is developing Chrome on top of its own Linux-based operating system, Google Chrome has much better Linux compatibility and performance outstrips any of the other available web browsers. Furthermore, he feels that Google’s intention to make the Web the only platform for applications is fascinating and that bringing Ubuntu in line with this course of thinking will keep it at the forefront of modern technology. Of course, Firefox will still be available for download via the Ubuntu repositories, but by making Chrome the default browser, Ubuntu will be sending out a clear message of preference.
So, while Ubuntu seems to be ready to switch horses, how do the browsers really compare, and what are end users thinking?
In the first half of this year, global statistics indicate that across all operating systems, Firefox has about 24 percent share, while Chrome has about half of the uptake. However, since December 2010, Firefox has seen a gradual decline in favour, but Chrome usage has been growing rapidly.
It is fair to say that Chrome is not only stealing its user base from Firefox, and certainly a large number of users are switching over from internet Explorer. However, even after the 4.01 release of Firefox it is clear that techies are split over which browser they favour. Still, in all of these reports we are focussing on statistics across all operating systems.
Shuttleworth believes that Chrome is an obvious choice for Linux because it is built for performance on a Linux kernel.
So what are Linux users thinking. In the first half of this year, statistics gathered from the United States indicate that Firefox holds about a 70% share among Linux users, while Chrome holds about 18% of the Linux market. In the last six months of last year, Firefox had about 74 percent of the market share, while Chrome had 15%. This certainly indicates that Chrome is stealing Firefox’s thunder. But its uptake is still only a fraction of the entire Linux user base.
The fight between Chrome and Firefox is not as clear as one might think. The Mozilla Foundation receives about 85 percent of its funding from Google, and back in 2008 Google renewed a three year deal with Mozilla which meant that funding would continue through to 2011. Time will tell if Google continues to invest so heavily in Mozilla, but my guess is that it will wait until Chrome has completely gained a lead on Firefox before it announces any change in policy.
So, in the open-source game, things aren’t as clear as they seem and certainly money seems to be playing a role in how this browser war will finish. But, Google’s financial contributions to Mozilla aren’t the only thing to keep an eye on. Back in 2009, Canonical congratulated Google on its work on Google Chrome OS, but then went on to say that “Canonical is contributing engineering to Google under contract” and they are directly involved in the development of the Chrome OS. While it is difficult to obtain a direct figure for the amount of capital that Canonical gets from Google for its services, it is clear that they have an invested interest in keeping on good terms.
If Ubuntu is considering the switch to Chrome, there should be a significant shift in market share for Google’s browser. The question is whether Google will continue to play nice with Mozilla, or whether it is trying to find a way to win the hearts of end users to a point where reducing or ending its financial contributions to Mozilla will not impact heavily on market perception.