Internet Explorer was the best until Microsoft ruined the web

Matthew Nuzum —  — Leave a comment

Have you ever looked back and recalled one bad decision, well intentioned at the time, that cascaded down to many bad results over the long run? Microsoft made one bad choice that ruined the web, and we haven’t fully healed yet. Many web developers today don’t remember the early browser wars, in the 2.0 and 3.0 days. It was an epic battle between Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Navigator browsers, and each was competing to come out with major new features.

There was coming a new generation of browsers, of dynamic HTML, and each of the browsers were inventing new web technologies that were far ahead of any standard bodies. Layers, divs, XML and more were being integrated into the browsers. Netscape launched Navigator 4, beating Microsoft to the market, but when Internet Explorer 4 was launched, the battle was over. It was so much better than Netscape. It was the beginning of their end.

This led Microsoft to make a horrible decision that is still affecting web browsers today.

We’ve heard that Microsoft will be dumping the Internet Explorer brand with Windows 10 and that it will be called “Edge”. This is probably a good idea. Microsoft had an early advantage over Netscape because of two things, one deliberate, the other probably coincidental.

The first benefit they had is that your new computer, starting with late versions of Windows 95, came pre-installed with a browser, Internet Explorer. You didn’t have to download anything to begin using it, and as many UX people know, users will often settle with the default option if it’s good enough. IE 2, however, was not good enough, and people promptly replaced it with Netscape, or possibly some browser delivered via their Internet provider, AOL being a popular option.

The other benefit that Microsoft had was that the first word of the icon’s name was “Internet,” which means that people who wanted to launch the “Internet” would click the icon by default. What do you want to do, browse the Internet? Well, click the “Internet” icon. That made sense

IE3 came out and it was good. It could do some cool stuff, and one exciting feature was that it had a customizable appearance. You could download graphics that changed the look of the browser, making it much more attractive than the boxy Netscape. It was also good enough at displaying web pages that many people didn’t need to switch. The battle was on.

Many knew the next battlefield would be on the capabilities of the web. Netscape founder Marc Andreessen famously predicted that, in the future, people wouldn’t need to build desktop applications, they would access all of their apps through the browser. Microsoft interpreted this as a full frontal assault, because if the desktop applications didn’t matter than neither did the desktop operating system. It would simply be a set of drivers needed to launch a browser.

Netscape launched the 4.0 series of browsers which allowed people to finally create beautiful desktop like applications using styles and “layers” that could be moved around easily. People got excited, but Microsoft through down the gauntlets and released IE4.

With this version, they were able to do things that no browser could, by integrating deeply into the desktop. The browser was beautiful, and you could create pages that integrated MS Office, load data from the server with out refreshing the page (now called Ajax), create richly beautiful pages with advanced CSS and use the more standard’s compliant <div> tags rather than “layers” to create dynamically changeable web pages.

Web developers had to choose. Either create old style, non-rich web pages like we had with the 3.0 browsers, build pages using Netscape’s proprietary layers or using IE’s divs. IE had so much more to offer than Netscape that most choose IE and Netscape quickly because passé. MS resoundingly won. Developers flocked to Windows, which had the ancillary effect of hurting both Unix and Mac OS. MS encouraged people to build tools using proprietary Windows only technologies, and developers did so. Standards went out the windows (pun intended).

IE5 came out and was incrementally better in every way. Better integration with the desktop, more mature HTML features, better dynamic HTML support and more. Everybody used IE, even Mac and Unix users.

That one bad choice

The only people who weren’t happy were enterprise users. Creating apps in an enterprise world was difficult when the browsers kept changing. Enterprise was, is, and will continue to be exceedingly important to MS.

So that’s when they ruined the Internet. Microsoft declared that new versions of Internet Explorer would only come out with major OS changes. Internet Explorer 6 was released and many websites were being built that would only work with Internet Explorer running on Windows. MS dropped support for Mac and Unix. If you wanted to use the web, you pretty much had to use Windows and Internet Explorer or you’d get a second-rate experience.

For a while, this was no big deal, because Internet Explorer was the best. But Netscape was reborn as Mozilla, and they open sourced their browser. The browser that came to be known as Firefox was released and pushed for the creation and adherence to strict HTML standards. Surprisingly, one of the best browser for HTML standards up to that point was a special version of Internet Explorer 5.5 for Mac OS.

Few people cared, except that Firefox was screamingly fast. And so the battle was reborn. But now, there was an incumbent who had massive market share, something like 93%, with relatively few people having a choice in what browser they used, because they needed it for enterprise app compatibility.

Maybe it’s not clear how Microsoft ruined the web, but here’s the gist: Because they had a huge grip on the desktop market, and many sites utilized IE only capabilities, whatever MS decided, web developers and users had to live with. When MS said that new browsers would only be tied to OS updates, they essentially said, “We own the web and we have decided: No more innovation except on our schedule.”

If you were a web developer and you wanted to use a cool new feature that one of the upstart browsers, of which there were several now, you either had to write in compatibility with IE6 or write off a very large portion of your users. You see, in 2002, the alternative browser scene started to heat up. Firefox was released, Apple announced a new browser based on KHTML (which came to be WebKit and Safari) and the battle for Internet standards heated up.

But still, so many users were using IE and MS browsers were starting to feel outdated. The rapid pace of innovation from the browser wars was over. It really wasn’t until around 2009 that things started getting exciting. At that point, Internet Explorer was well established as a bad word and was starting to give up market share, though a clear leader hadn’t shown up. IE 9 was released which had two modes, old-style IE6/7/8 mode and a standards compliant mode. (IE10 took this to new levels and with version 11 IE can honestly be considered a good netizen)

I think back to the seven or eight years that were lost due to battling Internet Explorer. Considering the speed of innovation on the Internet, how would things be different if the browser wars had continued during that time? I can’t even imagine.

I’m glad to see the battle resumed, and I’m glad to see MS innovating again with Edge. At this point, Chrome seems to be the likely leader, but I don’t think it matters who is ahead, I’d love to see the playing field diverse and a set of strong contenders. (there for a little while I was afraid that Webkit would be the new IE, but I think that’s no longer the case)

Photo Credit: mandyxclear

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Matthew Nuzum

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Web guy, big thinker, loves to talk and write. Front end web, mobile and UX developer for John Deere ISG. My projects: @dsmwebgeeks @tekrs @squaretap ✝