When you look at the major players in the web browser market since the dawn of time (1992), there have been two major periods of change in market share.
The first, between 1995 and 2000, saw Microsoft destroy Netscape's market share with successive versions of Internet Explorer (IE). The second started in 2004 and is, arguably, still going on as Firefox slowly nibbles away at IE's market lead (the last figures I saw showed Firefox's share at 21%).
These are often referred to as the 'Browser Wars'. And they were fiercely contested - but few bystanders would've bet against Microsoft's eventual victory.
May the best browser win!?
Unfortunately - the browser wars were never, and perhaps never will be about the 'best' browser.
In the mid to late 90's it could be argued that IE was competitive, if not innovative in terms of features.
But - once they had their market share and Netscape was effectively no more, Microsoft didn't release any new features to their browser for 5 years. This gave a dedicated team of open source developers time to build and released Firefox. This browser was both faster and had more useful features than IE, but even to this day it struggles to gain place in the market.
How to win a browser war
Winning a browser war is easy! All you have to do is get your browser installed as the default browser on the most machines. It doesn't have to be the fastest browser; it doesn't even have to be the browser with the best features. It just has to be there.
But why is this? Surely every user would want the best possible product on their desktops?
In practice, the majority of people regard their browser simply as a window through which they can access the wonders the web has to offer. So long as it's functional, and can render the majority of websites correctly - most people won't give the browser itself a second thought. The majority of Internet users probably aren't even overtly aware that they're using a product called 'Internet Explorer' - it's just 'The Internet'.
Of course there are those that care; some more advanced surfers and a large number of 'techies' will have the presence of mind to go out of their way to download and install a browser other than their default. Perhaps these people roughly make up the 21% of the market that use Firefox?
In short - Microsoft won the browser wars for one reason - Windows was already on the vast majority of desktops. Bundling their browser free with Windows got their browser 'out there' like no other vendor ever could, or perhaps ever will (although this did, of course, get them into quite a lot of trouble).
The first real browser war
Who can succeed where Firefox, and Netscape before them, failed - getting their browser on more desktops than Microsoft?
Perhaps Google can. On 2nd September 2008, Google released a beta version of their browser - 'Google Chrome'. Regardless of features, Google will 'win the war' by getting their browser on the most desktops. If they so choose, Google could exploit the same distribution channels they've already built for their 'Google Toolbar' product. This is offered as a free download with a surprising array of other software, including Adobe's hugely popular 'Acrobat Reader'. They also have deals with a number of hardware manufacturers to have their software pre-installed on new machines.
It would seem that Google have both the resources, and the distribution channels they need to make Chrome a real contender to the throne. If they choose to push it, we could be on the brink of the first real browser war.