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The death of Internet Explorer: Good riddance to bad rubbish
- 17 June, 2022 06:00
Today, at long last, Microsoft is officially ending support for Internet Explorer. Goodbye and good riddance to the most annoying web browser of them all.
Back in 1993 when I wrote the first story about this newfangled thing called the WEB, I knew it would be big. That’s more than Bill Gates thought about it at the time. At the 1994 Comdex, Gates said, “I see little commercial potential for the Internet for the next 10 years.”
Oh well, he got it right eventually. But neither he nor Microsoft was the first to release a web browser. Far from it!
The first popular graphical web browser came from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was called Mosaic. It was created by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, but while it’s the one everyone remembers, it wasn’t the first graphical web browser. That honour goes to ViolaWWW, a Unix browser, while Cello was the first Windows graphical web browser.
Mosaic, however, was the first browser to enable you to see images within pages. That was a game-changer. Earlier browsers could only show images as separate files. It was no contest: Mosaic won the first and earliest browser war.
A day late and a dollar short
By 1995, Gates had realised that Microsoft needed something to offer all the users who desperately wanted a web browser. In May 1995, Gates started saying things like, “The Internet is the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981” and comparing it to a tidal wave.
A tidal wave or not, Microsoft still wasn’t ready. Its quick-fix answer was to adopt Spyglass, a commercial version of the successful Mosaic web browser. This was the foundation of Internet Explorer (IE) 1, which debuted in August 1995, as part of Microsoft Plus for Windows 95, a Windows software add-on package.
IE 1 was a flop. It also created bad blood with Spyglass, which had been promised a percentage of Microsoft’s profits from IE. But Microsoft began bundling IE with Windows — and therefore had no profits. Microsoft would eventually settle with Spyglass for $8 million in 1997.
This Spyglass/Mosaic codebase would remain part of IE until IE7 was released. The “About” window on IE1 to IE6 contained the text “Distributed under a licensing agreement with Spyglass, Inc.” There are claims that Microsoft innovated with IE. It didn’t.
At the same time, Andreessen took the Mosaic code and turned it into the first widely successful web browser, Netscape. Andreessen boasted that Netscape would “reduce Windows to a set of poorly debugged device drivers.”
Netscape in its sights
Microsoft took the threat seriously. Netscape CEO James Barksdale would later testify that in a June 1995 meeting, Microsoft proposed that the two companies split the browser market, with Internet Explorer being the only Windows browser. If Netscape didn’t comply, Microsoft would crush it.
“I had never been in a meeting in my 33-year business career in which a competitor had so blatantly implied that we should either stop competing with it or the competitor would kill us,” Barksdale said during the Department of Justice’s 2001 antitrust trial against Microsoft.
But the real reason we’re saying goodbye to IE only today, long after Netscape became history, is that Microsoft exploited its illegal PC/Windows monopoly to block Netscape from computers. Microsoft strong-armed PC vendors into putting the new operating system and its browser on all their PCs.
The goal was not so much to kill off other PC operating system vendors; there wasn’t any real OS competition in the mid-‘90s. The goal was to destroy Netscape.
The courts agreed. The DoJ won in its lawsuit against Microsoft because the company’s PC monopoly made it impossible for Netscape to compete with IE. Unfortunately, the government gave Microsoft a slap on the wrist rather than breaking it up into separate companies or open-sourcing its code. And Netscape died, just as Microsoft had threatened back in 1995.
So it was that many of you grew up with IE as the browser you knew and loved. You didn’t know any better.
Not with a bang but a whimper
Microsoft stopped innovating with IE, particularly after it released IE6 with Windows XP in 2001. Why bother? Users weren’t going anywhere. They had no real alternatives. By the mid-2000s, IE’s market share was consistently over 90 per cent.
But eventually, Firefox, starting from Netscape’s old code, became a viable alternative around 2005. IE’s real end began, though, when Google decided to make a modern, fast, and efficient web browser, Chrome, in 2008.
Microsoft never caught up. Today, Microsoft’s modern browser, Edge, is based on Chromium, Chrome’s open-source code base. Indeed, except for Firefox, all current major Windows web browsers are built on Chromium’s foundation. Edge offers a feature called IE mode, which uses the Chromium engine for modern websites and the Trident MSHTML engine from IE11 for legacy sites built to work with Internet Explorer.
IE itself? It’s been left to die of neglect. Despite that, people are still using IE today, God help them! The US federal government’s Digital Analytics Program (DAP) shows an average of 300,000 IE site visits to government sites over the past seven days.
Although support for IE11 on Windows 10 ends on June 15th, Microsoft isn’t just killing it outright. No, the IE11 desktop client on Windows 8.1 and Windows 7 (and even Windows 10 Enterprise, version 20H2), with extended security updates, will stagger on.
In addition, IE mode in Microsoft Edge will still be supported until at least 2029. So, yes, those miserable IE-only websites and apps are still going to be working for years to come. That means you don’t want to uninstall IE yourself. Edge will still be using that functionality when it runs into an antique website. Microsoft has also said that IE desktop applications will be progressively redirected to Microsoft Edge for now.
When will IE actually be buried? We don’t know. Microsoft isn’t saying. Someday, though, you’ll get a Windows Update that wipes out IE once and for all.
I can’t wait!