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As Microsoft's Internet Explorer bows out, a look at its chequered life

By Devangshu Datta
August 21, 2020 12:37 IST
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The potted history of the browser wars indicates how much the online space has altered in the last 25 years.

Chrome’s dominance, says Devangshu Datta, is unlikely to last forever.

There was just a small ripple across the technosphere when Microsoft (MS) announced it would retire its Internet Explorer (IE) browser, shutting down all support by August 2021.

MS also stated that the IE successor, the MS Edge browser, would move completely onto Google’s open-source Chromium platform.

Neither IE nor Edge are popular anymore.


Barely 1.3 per cent of the world’s surfers (desktop plus mobile) used IE in July 2020, and cynics would suspect that many of those IE windows were opened by accident.

MS Edge only has about 2.2 per cent market share.

Google’s Chrome, (also based on Chromium and integrated with the Android operating system), is by far the most popular of browsers, with 66 per cent market share across all platforms.

Apple fans prefer Safari (16.65 per cent).

Geeks use Mozilla’s Firefox (4.26 per cent), or Opera (2.05 per cent), or Vivaldi (0.04 per cent).

Both Opera and Vivaldi are built on top of Chromium, so Google’s dominance of this space is even more extreme than it looks at first glance.

This is a sea change from the turn of the century.

In 1998, Microsoft had to defend itself against antitrust allegations when it integrated the IE browser with its Windows operating systems and offered it for free.

In 1998, when MS denied being a monopolist despite the overwhelming dominance of the desktop category, the smartphone wasn’t even a gleam in Steve Jobs’s eyes.

In September that year, two college kids would incorporate a search engine company called Google.

Going further back into history, the internet was a text-based academic resource until Tim Berners-Lee conceptualised hypertext markup language (HTML) in the early 1990s.

That was the foundation of the World Wide Web.

The first browsers became available circa 1994, when small companies like Mosaic jumped into the fray.

Netscape Navigator was revolutionary, with its deep, feature-rich menus.

Mosaic and Netscape Navigator were paid programs.

Surfers bought floppy disks (look them up if you don’t know what these are!) loaded with these programs and installed them on their PCs.

MS changed the paradigm when it asked Mosaic to design IE and then offered IE as a free installation bundled with every Windows operating system.

That move drove every other browser out of the market.

Netscape was a better product than IE for several years.

But it couldn’t compete even by going free.

Unlike MS, it had no other revenue stream.

Surfers didn’t want to pay for an alternative browser and go through the hassle of installation, when they could use one that was bundled for free.

By 2001, IE held over 90 per cent of browser market share.

However, even at that point, geeks preferred the Norwegian Opera, which was much more memory-efficient and secure.

IE worked well enough but more than its features, it was the market dominance that made it a killer app.

Online commerce was already a thing.

But most e-commerce sites didn’t configure payment systems for anything other than IE.

Some government websites didn’t work for non-IE downloads of important documents and data.

It was all extremely irritating for consumers and researchers.

It was also irritating for programmers to write code to make other browsers emulate IE in order to make them work on e-commerce sites.

A new free browser was launched in 2002 by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation.

Mozilla Firefox wasn’t only free and feature–rich, it was also open-source and easily customisable.

The geek community embraced Firefox.

Given access to the source code, indy developers wrote literally millions of Firefox add-ons that pushed the boundaries of its functionality.

Power-users who used Firefox a couple of times tended to fall in love with it because it could do so many things IE could not. (Disclosure: This happened to me).

So, Firefox grabbed market share immediately.

Five years later, Apple changed the game all over again.

It launched the iPhone in 2007, and Google followed with the open-source android operating system which democratised the smartphone market.

Smartphones and quick 3G connections (now 4G and 5G) altered the surfing landscape.

Windows had negligible market share in phones, and that meant browsers from MS also had zero leverage in terms of gaining penetration.

IE just slid down the pecking order.

Ironically, when Google released Chrome in 2008, it deployed the same tactics as MS had with IE and did it better with the benefit of hindsight.

Chrome worked on smartphones and across multiple operating systems on desktops.

Google even created a stripped down operating system based on Chrome.

Chrome has steadily gained market share across platforms and it’s the world’s default browser at the moment.

But this potted history of the browser wars indicates how much the online space has altered in the last 25 years.

Chrome’s dominance is unlikely to last forever.

Photograph: Rickey Rogers/Reuters

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