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Tales In Tech History: Internet Explorer

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Microsoft’s first web browser once ruled the world, but it almost resulted in Redmond being broken up

When one thinks of Microsoft, one tends to naturally associate it with the Windows operating system and the Office productivity suite.

Yet the Internet Explorer (IE) web browser was also hugely important piece for the software giant, as it played an vital role in the early days of the World Wide Web and the takeup of the Internet among computer users.

Nearly 22 years after it first appeared, and despite the fact that it has now been officially retired, it still retains a significant market share thanks to the huge market share of the Windows operating system.

IE, Internet Explorer 9 © 63550558 Shutterstock 2012Establishing a Foothold

But how did such a piece of software, developed in a rush by Redmond to meet a need it was not expecting, become so popular?

Well it should be remembered Microsoft in the 1990s was a tech company in a position of immense power. Under the leadership of then CEO Bill Gates, it had beaten all of its rivals and challengers, and established itself as the premier software provider for the personal computer.

But the 1990s was the decade that heralded the start of the Internet craze, even though by 1996 only about 1 percent of the world was even online. After all, back then there was no such thing as ‘always on’ Internet and connection speeds were painfully slow (dial up modems anyone?).

And there were relatively few websites to choose from.

So perhaps it was hardly surprising then that Bill Gates was not a big believer in the Internet. Indeed, it could be argued that Gates was caught by surprise by the Internet’s grassroots acceptance.

But that is not to say that Microsoft had not seen the fact that since 1994, more and more computer users were getting online. Unfortunately Microsoft had no product in its arsenal to help with that.

So it scrambled to catch up and the Internet Explorer project was started in the summer of 1994 by Thomas Reardon, who thanks to licensing agreement with Spyglass (the firm behind the Mosaic web browser), Redmond was able to use Mosaic’s source code as the basis for the first version of Internet Explorer.

This first version of Internet Explorer appeared in August 1995, soon after the launch of the Windows 95 operating system.

Windows 95

From the start IE was intended to be Redmond’s answer to the dominant web browser of the 1990s as the Internet emerged from academic roots to become an indispensable business tool.

But it was going up against a well entrenched web browser, namely Netscape Navigator.

Microsoft was not deterred and version 2.0 of IE was released in November 1995. But to critics IE 2.0 suddenly included some of the features and design aspects of Netscape Navigator.

That makes sense, as in 1996 Netscape Navigator made up 90 percent of the web browser market, and Microsoft would have to work hard to chip away at this massive lead. IE 2.0 was designed so it could work with all the websites designed for the Netscape browser, and Netscape bookmarks could be imported into this new version of IE.

Version 3.0 of IE appeared in August 1996, and now the momentum had really begun to swing Microsoft’s way. It abandoned the use of the Spyglass source code (although it retained some of the tech), which resulted in a lawsuit in ended up with Microsoft having to pay Spyglass $8m.

Browser Wars

By now the browser wars had well and truly started, and matters were not helped when in IE 4.0 arrived in October 1997.

At the launch party of IE 4.0, some Microsoft employees reportedly took a ten foot high IE statue and placed it on the front lawn of Netscape’s offices in California.

Netscape staff reportedly knocked it over and placed their own statue on top of it.

IE 4.0 was also when Microsoft, in a highly controversial move, bundled Internet Explorer free of charge with the Windows operating system, in a move that eventually proved to be the undoing of Netscape.

This calculated move by Microsoft to bundle a free browser caused outrage among many industry observers at the time for setting a dangerous precedent. After all, Microsoft could then decide to bundle database software, or any software it choose, free of charge in future Windows releases, if it deemed it was a market it wanted to dominate.

IE 5.0 was released in September 1999 and was later bundled free of charge within Windows 98. At this time IE had won the browser wars and enjoyed a 80 percent market share, thanks to its free integration with Windows.

Breakup Threat

But that integration decision caused Microsoft no end of trouble at the time.

Indeed, the business demise of Netscape was a central plank in Microsoft’s antitrust trial that began in May 1998 and lasted until June 2001.

Microsoft was accused of becoming a monopoly and engaging in abusive practices contrary to the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. The bundling of IE with Windows meant that every Windows user had access to a free web browser.

Microsoft’s conduct with ‘restrictive licensing agreements with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)’ also came under the spotlight during the court case.

Bill Gates was grilled by the court and his arguing over the definitions of words such as “compete”, “concerned”, “ask”, and “we”, as well as frequent use of “I don’t recall”, led some observers to conclude he was being evasive and non-responsive.

The court eventually ruled against Microsoft and threatened to break up the company.

Redmond appealed and eventually in November 2001, both Microsoft and the DoJ reach a settlement (the user could choose which web browser they wanted to use), but many observers felt at the time the settlement deal was a mere slap on the wrist for the software giant.

Staying Relevant

There is little doubt that Redmond had escaped serious sanction, but things did not all go Microsoft’s way in the following years, as IE struggled to hang on to its market share in the 2000s.

The launch of Firefox (in 2004) and Google Chrome (in 2008), coupled with the growing uptake of other operating systems such as Android, Mac OS, Linux and iOS saw the market share of Internet Explorer plummet.

Poll: What web browser do you use?

Internet Explorer became less and less relevant to people’s lives, as they opted for other faster and more secure web browsers.

Microsoft is a company that is ruthless when it comes to culling products it deems no longer core to its aims (prime example is Windows Phone), and thus in March 2015 it announced that Microsoft Edge (or Project Spartan) would replace Internet Explorer as the default browser on Windows 10 devices.

This meant that IE 11 was effectively the last release of Internet Explorer, and it is now the only IE version still supported by Redmond.

Internet Explorer proved that Microsoft was a company that could enter a market very late, and could rapidly bypass all the established competition to become the dominant player.

Its tactics doing this almost resulted in the software giant being broken up.

Internet Explorer was thus a prime example of Microsoft’s software and financial muscle, but it was also a warning to other tech firms regarding their business practices.

Quiz: Think you know all about web browsers?