Internet Explorer’s downfall was drawn-out and painful

Welcome back to my obituary for a terrible program. Last week, I walked you through early internet history and the rise of Microsoft’s browser, but this week is about Internet Explorer’s downfall.

To recap: Netscape was worried that Microsoft’s decision to integrate IE with Windows would spell doom for their company. It was right, and that happened in about five years despite litigation to stop it. Microsoft reigned supreme in the browser market, as it did in the OS, word processing, spreadsheet, and slideshow markets.

Let’s look at how IE went from that level of dominance to a decade of irrelevance before an unceremonious and slow death.

The Browser Bores

IE dominated the browser market, essentially uncontested, for much of the early 2000s. IE6 was the internet browser during that time and Microsoft didn’t replace it until 2006. There was just straight up no browser innovation from the company for five years.

Not much replaced Netscape either until the Mozilla Foundation released Firefox in November 2004.

You might remember from a photo caption last week that Netscape’s mascot was also named Mozilla. That is not a coincidence. Netscape created an internal team called the Mozilla Organization in February 1998 to make its internet-based software open source. The organization worked on the aptly and uncreatively named Mozilla Application Suite. This all happened before AOL acquired Netscape and before Microsoft’s antitrust suit.

Now you’re probably wondering what happened after AOL ran Netscape through the office shredder in July 2003. Well, the Mozilla Organization launched the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit that would take over the work the organization had been doing – and AOL helped. It gave the non-profit US$2 million and some intellectual property to go away. I’m sure the relationship was amicable, but this part is boring, so I have to spice it up somehow.

Thankfully, Firefox 1.0 would make things nice and spicy, launching the Second Browser War as it hit the internet. Media outlets were lauding the software, and it was winning awards all over the place. That was getting users’ attention. This is the moment when Internet Explorer’s downfall began but buckle up because we still have a long ride ahead of us.

Market-share estimates place Firefox somewhere between 8% and 14% in late 2005, a year after its release. That compared with IE, which was still well above 80%. Not a bad start considering Firefox’s competitor came preinstalled in most computers.

Internet Explorer stagnates

Microsoft’s response to Firefox was essentially a shrug. Bill Gates wasn’t impressed by the upstart browser, telling the BBC that “IE is better”. Yeah okay, Bill.

IE certainly came with more security vulnerabilities. Even in 2004, security expert Bruce Schneier recommended not using the browser at all. Carnegie Mellon University’s computer emergency response team also suggested IE abstention as a potential solution to a major vulnerability in the software. It pointed out that part of what made IE so dangerous was its deep integration into the operating system. Gotta love those unintended consequences.

IE’s early history was a whirlwind of new releases and innovation. But once it reached the top, the browser’s developers seemed to figure they could take it easy. IE6 had been out since 2001, and its age was showing. It couldn’t handle transparent PNGs or new advancements in CSS. It didn’t have tabs, nor did it come with a search bar (feel free to download another search toolbar though, that’s probably safe). You had to open a new window and go directly to Google anytime you wanted to look something up.

Firefox was the Chad making the virgin IE look bad. It had all the features IE lacked, and a community of developers interested in adding new ones while keeping users secure. IE was a browser aligned with the past while Firefox represented the future.

And so began a long tradition of IE playing catchup while its competitors did all the innovating.

I just can’t quit you, IE6

A slick competitor didn’t immediately lead to Internet Explorer’s downfall. In fact, IE’s user share remained high. At this point, it was mainly nerds like me who cared about what Firefox was doing.

If the comments on ancient tech blogs are any indication, most users enjoyed the convenience of a preinstalled browser. Some were resistant to the idea of tabbed browsing too, although their arguments were little more than “I don’t want to change”. Maybe that’s why IE6 wouldn’t go away long after Microsoft replaced it.

Microsoft finally did that in October 2006 by the way. IE7 introduced a ton of features that competitors like Firefox and Opera had been doing for years. But many shrugged, just like Gates once shrugged at Firefox.

Business users were the most reluctant to upgrade. When they did switch browsers, a good amount went to Firefox instead. Regular users weren’t much different. A year after IE7 came out, only about 20% of users were on it, according to W3Counter data. About 46% still used IE6.

It would take nearly two years for IE7 to overtake its predecessor in usage share. By that point, IE8 was in the works. Firefox, for its part, made up close to 27% of the market.

IE6 was a weird case. People continued using it nearly a decade after its expiry date. It got so bad that Microsoft had to resort to a bizarre … communications stunt? I’m not sure what to call it. I’ve never seen anything like this. It was a website called The Internet Explorer 6 Countdown, and it tracked IE6 usage around the world in an attempt to shame people into not using it. The goal was to get its market share to less than 1%, which did not happen until sometime in 2015.

screenshot of the Internet Explorer 6 Countdown website from April 2013
It’s not every day that you see a company advocating against the use of one of its products.

Nerdy ass battle rap

While the First Browser War included some light mischief and vandalism, this one was mostly fought with the keyboard. No one dropped off oversized logos on the other’s lawn. They just wrote sassy blog posts, which I assume the public ignored even more than IE7. Here’s the hottest battle I could find from this saga.

Microsoft security strategy director Jeff Jones fired the first shot in October 2007. In “Browser Vulnerability Analysis of Internet Explorer and Firefox”, Jones argued that Firefox had more security vulnerabilities than IE despite claims from the company that its products were more secure.

Mozilla’s Mike Shaver shot back quickly. His post, “Counting Still Easy, Critical Thinking Surprisingly Hard”, criticized the analysis, saying what Jones had done was no more than counting the fixes reported by each company. That mattered, he said, because while Mozilla was transparent about the fixes it made, Microsoft was not.

His harshest comments came in a follow-up interview with eWeek.com when he said Jones’s report was “something you’d expect from maybe an undergrad”.

Shaver also told the blog that most Firefox users are updated to the browser’s most secure version in less than a week. That stands in stark contrast with the figures above regarding IE7’s pitiful adoption rates.

The diss showdown played well in the tech-blog community, but I can’t find any references to it in major publications. The mainstream media only cares about battles fought on corporate headquarters with oversized logos and spray paint.

Meanwhile, IE, Chrome, and Firefox developers were sending each other cake whenever one launched new software. Some war eh?

Chrome: a big step toward Internet Explorer’s downfall

Maybe Microsoft’s numbers were so low in Jones’s report because the company was bad at finding its own bugs. That seemed to be the case in late 2008 when hackers finally found a major vulnerability in IE7 that had also been in prior versions. Security experts again recommended that users switch to a rival browser.

By the end of its lifecycle, IE gained a reputation as a slow, clunky, insecure browser, and I imagine high-profile oopsies like this were partly to blame. Still, that reputation was built over time, not by just one incident. The Second Browser War was one of attrition.

The next big step toward Internet Explorer’s downfall came on Sept. 1, 2008, when Google published a comic by Scott McCloud announcing its Chrome browser. Yeah, these nerds used a digital comic book to let the world know about Chrome.

Google’s entry also came with some feel-good moments unbefitting a browser war. At the time, Mozilla and Google were next-door neighbours. Mozilla moved across town in July 2009, and the New York Times sent a reporter over to do a story on the relationship.

If the reporter was looking for controversy, they didn’t find it. Mozilla’s harshest criticism of Google came from CEO John Lilly, who said only “Life was simpler” before Google launched Chrome.

For its part, Google seemed to look fondly on Firefox, with then-vice-president of engineering (and current CEO) Sundar Pichai saying, “Mozilla has done an amazing job.” He also said, “We were all very clear that if the outcome [of Chrome] was that somehow Mozilla lost share to Google, and everything else remained the same, internally, we would have been seen as having failed.”

The subtext is that these belligerents were unified in the goal of dethroning IE.

Still, Google’s browser didn’t exactly explode out of the gate. It seems that, aside from Netscape, no browser starts dominating on Day 1.

a chart maps Google Chrome's rise and Internet Explorer's downfall
Chrome did start dominating after about four years though. By Year 5 it had about a 15 percentage point lead on IE. This chart is from Statista and is available through a CC BY-ND 3.0 licence (that’s what those symbols on the centre-left mean).

I’m just gunna hit fast-forward here

Microsoft had time to find ways to remain competitive. It started in early 2009 with IE8, but the browser represented little more than another game of catchup. And in March 2011, IE9 would represent another game of catchup. Even vice-president of IE, Dean Hachamovitch, admitted that. He reckoned his company was good at jumping though and that this release would leapfrog the competition.

If that were true on the day IE9 came out, it wouldn’t be a month or two later. IE released major updates every few years. Chrome and Firefox meanwhile rolled them out every few months. Any time IE did come up with an innovative feature, its competitors could quickly add it to their programs. The reverse was not true. Innovations always took a while to reach IE.

I know I’m going quickly through these releases, but each one was the same story. Early IE history was interesting, and every release mattered. But post-IE7, the program was mostly spinning its wheels. IE continued playing catchup with its competitors in versions 10 (September 2012) and 11 (October 2013).

It never caught up. Chrome had taken the top spot in terms of market share by the time Microsoft released IE10, and it has not lost that spot since.

The browser had been trending downward since 2004, but Internet Explorer’s downfall seemed inevitable during these later releases. People were making memes about it, saying it was only useful for downloading a better browser.

Microsoft realized it had a branding problem. IE was toxic, synonymous with junkware. Things looked bad, but the company hoped it could turn things around.

Before Internet Explorer’s downfall, it writhed in pain

Before Microsoft admitted defeat, it attempted a hilarious Hail Mary. On Tumblr of all places.

The company launched an ad campaign called “Browser You Loved to Hate” (formatting theirs) and it featured such persuasive slogans as “Internet Explorer is Actually Good Now” and “Comebacks come in many shapes and sizes”.

It seems like an ad campaign from the 90s. It’s edgy, funny, and it goes against every bit of common knowledge about how to advertise something. But this wasn’t the 90s, it was 2012, so Microsoft got apocalypse imagery and the Mayans involved. I know this sounds unbelievable, but it happened:

a meme from Microsoft that reads, "Signs of the Apocalypse" and "Internet Explorer is Actually Good Now #TheMayansWereRight"
I know this is tiny, but such was life on Tumblr in 2012.

Microsoft also made a series of YouTube videos for the campaign, which are still online, unlike the Tumblr account. It did some BuzzFeed posts too.

There was one major flaw with this promotion, pointed out by a Wired article: it was dedicated to IE9 when IE10 was about to come out. This floors me. Why not just wait a couple of months for the new browser?

Incredibly, they continued this campaign after IE10’s release. That photo is from December, and the archived version of the page shows a link to download a program that was outdated even then.

Unsurprisingly, the campaign persuaded few people that IE was good. The blog’s posts have very few notes; no one was even roasting them!

I have no idea how they managed to stay invisible on Tumblr as a maligned brand doing a wacky ad campaign in 2012. Back then I was extremely online and I would have lost my mind if I had seen this. I surely would have done a Media Are Plural episode on it. Instead, I’m linking to an archived version of the post 2,200 words into Part 2 of an obituary for a widely panned piece of software.

One step closer to the Edge

Any residual hope of an IE comeback was dashed in late 2014 when ZDNet reported Microsoft was working on a new browser for Windows 10 under the codename Spartan. That ended up being Edge. Microsoft did include IE11 with Windows 10, but the company has been doing everything in its power to stop people from using it.

Last week I mentioned that IE automatically opens some sites in Edge. Well, I tried to open YouTube and found out that indeed it’s true. If you’re on a Windows PC, give it a try.

A popup on YouTube explains that my computer has opened Microsoft Edge to prevent me from viewing the site with Internet Explorer
Please appreciate the fact I had to open both Internet Explorer and Edge to make this image happen

It makes you wonder why they even bothered including it. Thankfully, Microsoft security expert Chris Jackson gave us the answer in a 2019 blog post titled “The perils of using Internet Explorer as your default browser”. Guess he wasn’t involved with the Tumblr blog. He wrote that IE11 “is a compatibility solution” and not a browser.

It’s an artifact, useful only for accessing other artifacts that your employer or government won’t abandon. Well, they have until June 2022 to upgrade.

Microsoft hasn’t busted out an IE11 countdown website like the one for IE6, but it is doing everything else to get people off it. The company has already ended support for IE on Microsoft Teams, and its 365 apps are following suit in August. They’ve even rolled out an Internet Explorer mode for Edge. In case your employer is stubborn about that intranet site, I guess.

Internet Explorer’s downfall is complete

Today, Chrome controls around 65% of the market. Firefox and Edge hover somewhere around 4%. Safari, Apple’s browser, is the only competitor with a double-digit share at 16-17%. That’s largely because it is the default on Macs and iPhones.

Despite Chrome’s dominance, there are probably more unique browsers available today than at any point in history. Many target niche subsets of the browsing public.

However, most of these competitors are based on Chromium, the open-source software created by Google that powers Chrome. Even Edge uses that technology. Google has a hand in everything.

I wouldn’t get too comfortable if I were Google though. If nothing else, the story of Internet Explorer’s downfall is a reminder that no browser is too big to fail. It dethroned a competitor that controlled over 90% of the market, before going on to corner roughly 95% of it. Then, a plucky non-profit raised from the ashes of that competitor started a chain of events that would lead to its obsolescence in less than a decade.

Theoretically, the same thing could happen to Chrome, especially as Google faces several antitrust suits that have been compared with the one Microsoft faced in the late 90s. Those suits don’t touch on Chrome at all, but hey, I’ve used the term “unintended consequences” already in this article.

What about you: what browser do you use? Have you ever tried one of the many niche browsers based on Chromium like Brave, Vivaldi, Blisk, or ungoogled-chromium? (Yes, those are all real.) Let me know in the comments!

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