How Internet Explorer exploded in the 90s

It finally happened. Microsoft announced it will be ending support for Internet Explorer (IE) in 2022. It’s the death knell for one of the most infamous pieces of browser technology.

I was surprised Microsoft hadn’t done this already. IE has been a laughingstock for at least a decade, and Microsoft already has a far more competent replacement in its Edge browser. I’ve had my laptop since 2017 and I only just learned it has IE installed because I went looking for it upon hearing this news. Any time the computer forces me to use a browser other than my preferred one, it fires up Edge.

IE is the browser you only use on accident, or because the government or your employer is making you use some obscure piece of technology that hasn’t been updated since 2006 and only runs on IE. Apparently, IE itself will launch sites like YouTube and Twitter in Edge instead of accessing them itself. That has to be one of the most pitiful things I’ve ever read.

Still, Internet Explorer was once the top dog of the browsing world. It’s one of five desktop browsers I’ve ever used (Netscape, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari are the others). And its history is rich and interesting.

So, let’s look back on how this long-derided browser became the industry standard. It’s a story of aggressive business practices, litigation, and frat-house antics. We’ll save its fall from grace for next week.  

Internet Explorer’s slow start

The year was 1995, a time so inspiring that Microsoft Corp. named their new operating system (OS) after it. Windows 95 was a source of unusual excitement among computer users, who lined up all over the world to get their hands on the CD at midnight on Aug. 24. Microsoft advertised the hell out of it, to the tune of US$150 million (more than US$260 million in today’s money) according to a New York Times report. And it worked. People were allured by the brand-new Start button and the redesigned interface, among other things.

But one element missing was a web browser. For that, consumers would have to shell out another US$49.99 for Microsoft Plus! for Windows 95. The software came with a program called “Microsoft Internet Explorer” that let users, as the name suggests, explore the internet.

Most users, however, bought Netscape Navigator.

That program, which was released in December 1994, quickly took the title of most popular browser from its then-main competitor, Mosaic. According to an internet survey from the GVU Center at Georgia Tech, Mosaic was the browser of choice for 97% of users in January 1994. But by April 1995, a World Wide Web survey quoted by Hal Berghel’s Cybernautica found that Netscape accounted for 54% of the market share, compared with Mosaic’s 3%.

(I want to note that Marc Andreessen, co-author of Mosaic’s code, also co-founded Netscape. Microsoft meanwhile built the first versions of IE on a version of Mosaic it had licensed.)

Microsoft included IE2 in a Windows 95 Service Release (basically wide-ranging updates) in November 1995, which would set a precedent of the company distributing its browser for free. But IE still didn’t make much of a dent in Netscape’s market share.

That coup would begin in a few months.

Competition heats up

As evidence in an antitrust case against Microsoft (more on that later) revealed, the company had zeroed in on the internet as “the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC”. That quote comes from an extremely long memo sent in 1995 by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. I strongly doubt anyone read it in full until it was included as evidence in the anti-trust case. I have seen emails a tenth of this size go ignored.

The memo spells out the company’s goal: to “match and beat” the offerings of Netscape and other competitors. Part of Microsoft’s plan was to move internet offerings like IE out of the plus packs and into Windows 95 itself, as it did with IE2 through a service release.

It did so again in August 1996 with the third version of IE, which put the browser’s features essentially on par with Netscape’s. IE3 also became the first browser to support the now-ubiquitous Cascading Style Sheets, more commonly called CSS.

The new features seemed to be a hit. IE3 cut into Netscape’s popularity, increasing its own market share to 20% by late 1997. Still, at least one reviewer felt Netscape was the superior product.

IE3 supported other technologies too, most notably Java. Support for Java was also a move aimed at Netscape. Microsoft’s then-group vice president Paul Maritz saw Java as a threat to Windows itself, according to a CNET report.

He feared that Netscape and Java were “using the browser to create a ‘virtual operating system’” that would one day make Windows replaceable. Java support was a step in Microsoft’s goal to catch up with Netscape and “neutralize Java”.

Make no mistake, Netscape also thought what it was doing would one day make Windows replaceable. Or rather, it would “reduce Windows to a mundane set of poorly debugged device drivers”, according to comments from Andreessen.

No wonder the events going on at the time were called the Browser Wars.

Cheap shots in the Browser Wars

Companies were fighting wars over everything in the 90s – even drinks and video game consoles. The Browser Wars were just as combative and petty as any other. My favourite story from the era sounds more like something warring fraternities would do. But this story is about multimillion-dollar tech companies.

Microsoft held a party in October 1997 to celebrate the launch of IE4 and the decor featured a massive version of the Internet Explorer logo. Some jokers in attendance decided to hand-deliver the logo to the front lawn of Netscape’s headquarters. They left a card that read, “It’s just not fair. Good people shouldn’t have to feel bad. Best wishes, the IE team.” How sweet.

Not to be outdone, Netscape vandalized the present. They toppled the logo and spray-painted “Netscape now” onto it, placed a statue of their mascot upon it, and attached a sign that read, “Netscape – 72, Microsoft – 18”. That was a reference to the companies’ market shares, which a Microsoft employee disputed in the story above (she said it was 62 to 36).

Shocking behaviour. Thank goodness people took photos.

Obviously, it wasn’t all fun and games. Some shots in the Browser Wars hit harder than others.

Like when Netscape helped build the antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft that I keep dancing around.

Netscape's mascot sits on a massive version of the Internet Explorer logo
The mascot’s name is Mozilla. No, that’s not a coincidence, although I’ll have to explain the relationship in next week’s article.

From innovation to litigation

Even before the lawn-ornament shenanigans, Netscape was concerned by Microsoft’s manoeuvres to choke them out of the browser market. It was particularly upset with how Microsoft was integrating IE into the source code of Windows and nervous about contracts Microsoft was signing with PC manufacturers that limited those companies’ ability to promote other software, such as Netscape’s browser.

In Netscape’s eyes, Microsoft was engaging in monopolistic behaviour. There was a solid antitrust case to be built against it.

Netscape initially sought to publish a book detailing Microsoft’s practices, but their CEO, Jim Barksdale, hit the brakes on that idea. His reasoning, according to Netscape lawyer Gary Reback in an amazing oral history of the lawsuit by The Ringer, was that the publicly traded company couldn’t publish a book that argued it would be screwed if the government took no action, largely in case the government took no action. Shareholders would have flipped.

Instead, the lawyer made a few copies, labelled them “confidential”, and sent one to the government. That was August 1996.

Less than two years later, in May 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) and 20 state attorneys general filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft centring on its decision to bundle Internet Explorer with Windows. Days earlier, Microsoft had released Windows 98, which came integrated with IE4.

Daniel Rubinfeld, who was deputy assistant attorney general for antitrust in the DoJ at the time, told The Ringer that the white paper’s influence on him was “very modest” but that he did take it into account.

Still, any decision that forced Microsoft to decouple IE and Windows would have been a boon to Netscape’s business.

Gates to court

Also a potential boon to Netscape: Bill Gates’s ludicrous deposition in the case.

Things did not start well for Microsoft. I didn’t expect that of all the things that could derail me, it would be an interview between a prosecutor and a tech executive. It’s truly must-see TV. Gates puts on an argumentative display in which he bickers about the definition of the words like “definition” and answers “probably members of the executive staff” when asked who was at an executive staff meeting. All while keeping a straight face. The DoJ has a transcript you can read, and you can find video versions all over YouTube.

Things didn’t go much better at the trial. Judge Thomas Jackson had the same reaction I had to Gates’s deposition: laughter. He didn’t find much of the other evidence that amusing though.

Microsoft’s lawyers showed the court a video of someone uninstalling IE, resulting in a slow and glitchy Windows experience. But the video appeared to be doctored since some icons on the screen disappear and reappear. Oops. The company later filed a new video and stopped arguing that uninstalling IE would slow down the OS.

Some of the most damning evidence came in the form of Microsoft executives’ comments. That includes the documents I referenced already and testimony from an Intel vice-president that one Microsoft executive told him the company wanted to “cut off Netscape’s air supply”. Factor in the deals with internet service providers and PC manufacturers to undercut rival browsers and the case appeared strong.

Indeed, in November 1999, Judge Jackson found Microsoft’s dominance constituted a monopoly. In April 2000, he found the company had broken antitrust laws by tying IE to Windows. And in June of that year, he ordered the company be broken up.

And in the end, nothing changed

You’re probably thinking, “didn’t you say before that your Windows 10 PC came with both Internet Explorer and Edge anticompetitively tied to the OS?”

Well, I didn’t word it quite like that, but yes that’s true. Microsoft appealed this decision and reached a settlement that stopped the breakup. You didn’t think Microsoft would really be broken up, did you? No, the company was just fine.

In fact, the internet business was booming for them. IE continued to cut into Netscape’s market share. Before the trial began in 1998, CNET reported that IE’s share had risen to 27.5% while Netscape’s had fallen to 41.5%. If you include AOL’s branded version of IE, the browser had an overall share of 43.8%. The numbers vary between sources, but they all indicate IE was the dominant browser by the end of 1999.

The trial didn’t stop them from developing new versions of IE, either. Microsoft released IE5 in March 1999 and increased the team of people who worked on the browser. IE6 came out with Windows XP in 2001 and would, much later, become infamous as a browser that would not die.  

In an ironic twist of fate, the only company that got broken up was Netscape, although not by government edict and not immediately.

AOL acquired it in 1999 in a move that some speculated was a way for AOL to increase its bargaining position against Microsoft. In late 2000, it bungled the launch of Netscape 6. In early 2002, the company ended an alliance between Netscape and Sun Microsystems that left Sun with all the intellectual property rights for what the companies had worked on. And finally, after AOL merged with Time Warner and the internet bubble popped, Time Warner disbanded Netscape in July 2003.

Internet Explorer stands alone

Not that it mattered. IE had already become the industry-standard browser and was enjoying unrivalled market dominance. More than 90% of users were on IE, a statistic Netscape had enjoyed less than a decade before its dissolution.

Of course, it’s plain to see that didn’t last. You’re almost certainly not using Internet Explorer right now. In fact, only one person has ever used IE to view my blog. I’m pretty sure that was a bot, too. I doubt you’ve even used the browser in years.

The only time I’ve used it in the past decade has been to download a better browser, or because an obscure tool at work needed to use IE. Even a decade ago, my friends and I referred to it as “Internet Exploder” because of its all-around shittiness.

It’s weird to think a program so derided was once used by nearly everyone who used a computer to access the internet. Thankfully, the story of IE’s downfall is as interesting as its rise, if a bit less litigious. There’s even a second Browser War to cover.

Keep an eye out for it next week. For now, let me know what browser you use in the comments.

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