The Rise and Fall of an Internet Legend

Microsoft’s ubiquitous browser Internet Explorer was finally put to rest in 2023, but it was a long and winding road to retirement. Here’s how Internet Explorer became the face of the web browsing experience and then faded away.

How Internet Explorer Began (And Became Legendary)

It was the year 1994. Microsoft was working hard to release its next operating system, Windows 95, with a huge range of changes compared to its predecessor, Windows 3.x. One of the biggest changes was native support for the Internet and an expectation that users would be hopping on the web. We take it for granted these days, but back then, a network of knowledge that could be accessed from an electronic device was a huge deal, and Microsoft wanted its next operating system to be Internet-ready.

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To do so, Microsoft needed a program that could browse the Internet. In service of getting Windows users on the web, Microsoft licensed Spyglass Mosaic, an early 90s web browser, and used its code to build the first version of Internet Explorer, which shipped with Microsoft’s Windows 95 in 1995.

The Microsoft Windows 95 startup splash screen.

The company did eventually get into a legal standoff with Spyglass over royalty payments which ended in Microsoft paying an $8 million settlement to Spyglass. But when the lawsuit dust settled, Internet Explorer was here to stay.

Over the next years, it would be one of the main parties in what was eventually known as the first «browser war,» fought against Netscape. Internet Explorer came out as the winner here, and soon enough, it became the most used browser in the world, peaking at 95% usage share by 2003.

Internet Explorer’s Slow and Tragic Demise

While Internet Explorer was riding high, it wouldn’t stay this way for long. An old foe would eventually return to bite back, except this time, it was transformed.

Though Netscape had ultimately died before it did, it was open-sourced. The AOL-owned company would eventually form a company called the Mozilla Organization. Afterward, a non-profit called the Mozilla Foundation was created to ensure Mozilla could survive without Netscape, and the remains of Netscape were made into what’s known today as Mozilla Firefox. The very first version was released in 2004.

Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox logos.

On the other hand, Google also wanted a piece of the browser pie. After an initial reluctance to enter the browser market, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin hired a bunch of Firefox engineers, who put together a demonstration of what would eventually become Chrome, making Google’s then-CEO, Eric Schmidt, change his mind. Development of the browser eventually ensued, with the first version of Chrome released in 2008.

Microsoft’s reaction to the second browser wars was to just, well, sit back and do nothing about it. As other browsers innovated and gained market share, Internet Explorer development largely stagnated and went idle. What was once a great browser became an artifact of an earlier age, refusing to change as the Internet changed, shifting its reputation from beloved to barely tolerated because people had to use it at work.

It earned a reputation for being slow and insecure — the browser you used at work because your work computer was locked down, not the browser you actually wanted to use. By the time it actually tried catching up, it was too late — it had lost all the user base it managed to amass in the early 2000s.

The last Windows version to ship with an updated version of Internet Explorer was Windows 8.1, which came with Internet Explorer 11. Afterward, Microsoft realized that it wasn’t worth it to keep developing it, and instead shifted its efforts towards a brand-new browser — Microsoft Edge.

But even as that browser was released and shipped with Windows 10, it wouldn’t be quite the end of the road for Internet Explorer.

Internet Explorer’s Zombie-like Death

Microsoft Edge logo

Despite the fact that Windows 10 shipped with Microsoft Edge, a snappy and modern browser (although based on Chromium, which was essentially a win for Google in those browser wars), Internet Explorer wasn’t actually fully dead. It would still ship with Windows 10, laying dormant as a secondary browser which some people would still fire up and use for some older-style websites.

It was mostly incapable of handling the modern Internet, but largely it just limped along for people who needed legacy support for old content. If your company had an internal web portal they hadn’t updated in a decade or more, there was a good chance your IT department would tell you to fire up ol’ IE to get it to load properly. There was a small, very vocal demand for it, enough for Microsoft to keep it around for years, rolling out small, security-focused updates.

Eventually, though, even Microsoft decided IE’s twilight had run long enough. Windows 11 removed Internet Explorer for all new OS releases, and over the course of 2022 and 2023, Microsoft began removing the browser from older PCs as well, putting an end, finally, to Internet Explorer. When it comes to Windows and ensuring old systems can hobble along as long as possible while bureaucratic gears turn to force updates, however, Microsoft is gentle.

Internet Explorer is gone on modern installs but not completely removed — in some flavors of Windows 10 with longer-term support, like Windows 10 IoT Enterprise LTSC, it will be supported until 2032. Most of us won’t see IE again any time soon, but if you’re in charge of an ancient back-end portal deep in some government agency, you have a few more years left to finish your migration.

For everyone else outside those limited circumstances, Internet Explorer was replaced with Edge’s IE mode, which allows you to display websites using the older IE engine. Microsoft plans to keep this around until at least 2029, with users getting a notice of its removal, whenever it happens, one year in advance. If nothing else, that old internal web portal at work might finally get updated.

Ultimately, Internet Explorer died a long, painful death with mountains of goodwill soured by years of stagnant development. Here’s to hoping Microsoft learned from the extended twilight of Internet Explorer and intends to keep Edge polished, relevant, and updated for years to come.

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