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Internet Explorer cheated its way to the top, and I won't miss it

IE frustrations
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Hagiography – it's the style in which people write about saints, or saintly types, venerated people, and things that deserve our adulation. Internet Explorer is none of those things.

This week, Microsoft finally pulled the plug for good on the 27-year-old browser, and is herding users over to its Chromium-based Edge browser (which is arguably better than any browser Microsoft has ever produced).

As the news broke, I saw a lot of nostalgia for, and fond memories of (along with some on-point criticism) a browser that was, starting with Windows 95, foisted upon an unsuspecting marketplace.

When Microsoft licensed Spyglass' and Mosaic code (an early browser engine) to build what would become Internet Explorer, Netscape was arguably the best-known and most popular web browser in the early internet age.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer wasn't even particularly usable in its few versions, but hit its stride with version 3.0, just in time for Windows 95.

An offer that couldn't be refused

If you bought a Windows 95 PC from virtually any manufacturer (Dell, Gateway, IBM, and a bazillion other whitebox PC companies) in 1996 and for the next five years or so, you found that Microsoft had also bundled in Internet Explorer, and made it your default browser.

Microsoft was relentless in its quest to make Internet Explorer the most widely-used browser in the world, and as Windows 95 began to dominate the desktop platform space, Microsoft made a crucial deal, one that had more in common with the back room than the board room. It convinced America Online to push aside Netscape, and make Internet Explorer the popular online gateway's default web browser.

A few years later, when Netscape was all but in ruins and Microsoft was facing a huge antitrust case, court testimony (opens in new tab) revealed the true nature of the deal. Then-AOL senior vice-president David Colburn said: "Microsoft gave it a mob-like offer it could not refuse: a prime piece of real estate on the Windows desktop in return for licensing Microsoft's Internet Explorer instead of Netscape Navigator."

IE in the ascendancy

This two-pronged strategy was remarkably effective. Netscape, which in 1996 had roughly 90% market share, tumbled to 42% by early 1999, while Internet Explorer zoomed from virtually nothing to over 55%.

At the turn of the century IE sat at over 75%, and the free-falling Netscape was at 23%. By 2001, Netscape's share was in single digits, while IE swallowed 90% of the browser market.

Internet Explorer didn't get there by being better. It devoured the market by taking hold of key levers and adjusting them in its favor.

Microsoft did work to improve its middling browser but, in a karma-filled twist, its Internet Explorer reclamation projects were quickly overshadowed by the arrival of an out-of-left-field web browser: Google Chrome.

Oh, hello Chrome

When Chrome arrived in 2008, Internet Explorer had dropped to 74%, and because Microsoft could no longer force IE on users as their default browser (and AOL was no longer a key online access point), Firefox had grown to a sizeable 26% of the browser market.

Within just four years, Chrome surpassed Internet Explorer as the World's most popular browser. In 2015, IE fell behind Firefox into third spot, while Chrome owned just over half the browser market.

The end of Internet Explorer is marked largely by ignominy. Barely one percent of people are still using it; it's remembered more for how it invited online attacks than how we used it to explore the early web; and it wears the shame of market chicanery.

We should not mourn Internet Explorer so much as we should wonder how it maintained its dominance for so long, and how so many businesses and market sectors were duped into using it. It survived not because we loved it, but because some services were designed so that they couldn't work without it.

By contrast, Microsoft's newer browser, Edge, is something to be celebrated. It's good, maybe even better than Chrome (though it uses the same engine); but more importantly, it's a choice.

Internet Explorer was never a choice – and I say good riddance.

A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.


Lance Ulanoff (opens in new tab) makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show (opens in new tab), Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.