How Microsoft Tried to Lock Out Web Browser Competitors | by Barry Silverstein | June 2022
For 15 years, Internet Explorer dominated the market
MMicrosoft announced on June 15, 2022 that it will end support for Internet Explorer (IE). This action may elicit yawns from users of Chrome, Firefox, Safari or other web browsers – but from a historical perspective, its significance cannot be overlooked. After all, IE dominated the web browser market for fifteen years.
Here is the backstory.
The Internet was originally born out of concern over the Cold War. The United States, fearing an attack by the Soviet Union on the country’s telecommunications network, turned to the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the United States Department of Defense for an alternative communications system. In 1962, ARPA, with help from MIT, began designing a “galactic network” through which computers could communicate, eventually creating “ARPAnet”, which sent its first computer-to-computer message in 1969 .
Network communications were pushed forward with the development of the “Transmission Control Protocol” (TCP), a method allowing any networked computer to talk to any other. The “Internet Protocol” (IP) was then added to create TCP/IP, the protocol that essentially transformed the Internet into a global computer network. Researchers and scientists from government agencies and research organizations used the Internet to communicate in the 1970s and 1980s. Initially, commercial use was not permitted.
The Internet began to take commercial shape when, in 1984, CompuServe launched an online “electronic mall”. The World Wide Web only appeared in 1991, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee, an English computer scientist. Berners-Lee is credited with creating the “web” of information that led to the modern internet. In 1992, with the passage of the Scientific and Advanced-Technology Act by the US Congress, the Internet was officially recognized for public and commercial use.
This is where things get really interesting. Also in 1992, researchers and students at the University of Illinois developed a web browser, Mosaic. Two years later, Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen brought the browser to market, forming Mosaic Communications Corporation. Their first product, “Mosaic Netscape”, was released in late 1994. Internally, the new browser was dubbed “Mozilla” because it was designed to be a “mosaic killer”. (Predatory practice #1.)
Just a few months into 1995, Mosaic Netscape was leading the browser market. To distinguish it from the original Mosaic browser, it was renamed “Netscape Navigator”. With Netscape’s new corporate name, the company successfully went public in August 1995.
Meanwhile, Microsoft, known for introducing its MS-DOS and later Windows operating systems for personal computers, realized that it was lagging behind in Internet technology.
To quickly bring a browser to market, Microsoft bundled it into an add-on for the Windows 95 operating system. Called Internet Explorer (IE), this web browser was based on Spyglass, a retail version of Mosaic, and IE was “distributed under license with Spyglass, Inc”. For its part, Spyglass was supposed to collect a quarterly fee plus a percentage of Microsoft’s revenue for the software. However, by the browser’s third release, Microsoft decided to bundle IE for free into Windows 95, depriving Spyglass of any additional revenue beyond its costs. (Predatory practice #2.) Spyglass threatened Microsoft with legal action, and Microsoft offered the company $8 million to settle the case in 1997.
Microsoft flexed its muscles in another way, aiming its fire and anger at Netscape. Netscape agreed to meet with Microsoft in 1995. According to Netscape CEO James Barksdale, “I had never been in a meeting in my 33-year career where a competitor so blatantly implied that we had to either stop competing with him or the competitor would kill us. (Predatory practice #3.)
From a technological point of view, IE could not compete with the more sophisticated and feature-rich Netscape Navigator. It didn’t seem to matter. Although IE was widely considered a bug-ridden and slow inferior product, it was irresistibly free – bundled with Microsoft’s operating system. Microsoft’s dominance in the PC operating system market virtually guaranteed that IE would become the number one web browser by default.
According to Steven Vaughan-Nichols, editor for ZDNet:
“Here’s the real reason IE beat Netscape: Microsoft’s heavily armed PC vendors to put the new operating system and its browser on all their PCs. The goal wasn’t so much to kill off other PC operating system vendors. There was no real competition in the mid-1990s. The goal was to destroy Netscape.
The US Department of Justice, along with twenty states, have taken notice, accusing Microsoft of unfairly restricting other web browsers in the competitive market. In 2000, Microsoft was found guilty of abusing its monopoly position by attempting to “dissuade Netscape from developing Navigator as a platform”, by “offering Internet Explorer and rewarding companies that have helped increase its share of usage” and “excluding Navigator from important distribution channels.” While the judge hearing the case recommended splitting Microsoft into two companies, this idea was rejected on appeal. Microsoft settled without be forced to change its corporate structure.
Unfortunately for Netscape, it was too little too late. The company was acquired by America Online (AOL) in 1999. Netscape Navigator, along with other software products, became part of a family of brands called iPlanet, which eventually became a division of Sun Microsystems. At the end of 2007, Internet Explorer held over 77% of the browser market, compared to less than 1% for Navigator. The final version of Netscape Navigator was released in 2008.
Even as Netscape Navigator was on the verge of demise, Google introduced its Chrome web browser in 2008. Chrome’s main competitive advantage was its cross-platform capability – and that was Internet Explorer’s death knell. Before long, Chrome became the block’s new bully, and Internet Explorer inevitably began to fade. In 2012, Google Chrome was the most used browser in the world. While Microsoft initially won the browser wars, it ceded its market leadership position to Google.
Going forward, Microsoft Windows operating systems will now include the Microsoft Edge web browser. Sean Lyndersay, General Manager of Microsoft Edge Enterprise, wrote in a blog post:
“Over the next few months, the opening of Internet Explorer will gradually redirect users to our new modern browser, Microsoft Edge with IE mode. Users will still see the Internet Explorer icon on their devices (such as on the taskbar or the Start menu), but if they click to open Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge will open with easy access mode instead. IE. Eventually, Internet Explorer will be permanently disabled as part of a future Windows update, in which case Internet Explorer icons on users’ devices will be removed.
Microsoft may have once dominated the web browser market…but not anymore.
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