Internet Explorer: A Brief History [6/2022 update]

6/15/2022: Internet Explorer Has Officially Retired

In this blog post today, Microsoft confirmed that IE is history.

I created the web browser project “O’Hare” within the Windows 95 team in early October 1994. I quickly filled out the team with software design engineers and program managers (6 total), and we got to work. By the time we shipped IE 3.0 in August 1996, I had grown the team to 67 people, and IE 3 was the world’s best web browser.

IE soared to 95% market share by 2004, but the last Macintosh version of IE was released in 2003, and Microsoft never released IE for Apple’s iOS/iPhone/iPad nor Google’s Android operating system. Why? Because Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer believed in Windows Windows Windows, so he walked away from web browser leadership, and Google took up that mantle with its Chrome web browser. As sales of smart phones and tablets quickly outstripped the sales of personal computers, IE became irrelevant (there are an estimated 1.7B Windows computers vs. 5.2B smart phones today).

5/27/2021: Why post this now?

On May 20th, 2021, Microsoft announced the end of Internet Explorer. So this is a perfect time to reflect back on my role in the creation of the world’s most popular web browser (1998-2012).

I first “surfed” the World Wide Web in June 1994, at Microsoft. One of my co-workers had an “Internet Tap” in his office: a standard RJ45 wall plate, connected directly to the Internet (rather than the internal corporate network). This was before “firewalls”, so there were many precautions to be followed! I ordered an internet tap for my office and started exploring the WWW at a blazing 1 Mbps (14.4 K was the fastest dial-up modem speed at the time).

In The Beginning

In early October, my manager John Ludwig asked me to assemble a team and build a web browser for “Chicago” (the code name for Windows 95). I quickly grabbed 6 people and we went to work. Thomas Reardon licensed the NCSA Mosaic code base from Spyglass in December, and in early January we mapped out an 8-week development plan for “O’Hare” (the international gateway to the world for the City of Chicago, and our web browser would be the gateway to the World Wide Web for Windows 95).

The Rise of Internet Explorer

Netscape was the early winner in the “Browser Wars”. Netscape posted the first beta release of “Navigator” (coincidentally) a few days after I pulled together the IE team, and Navigator quickly became the most popular web browser. We shipped three versions of IE in 22 months and I — along with many other team members — worked 80-100 hour weeks for 17 of those months.

Despite being pre-installed on every Windows 95 PC beginning in 8/1995, IE gained only a few percentage points of browser market share. But when we released IE 3.0 in 8/1996, it won all the (trade) press reviews, and its market share soared to over 30% within a year.

IE 3.0 was the first browser to implement CSS, and IE 4.0 (9/1997) was the first browser to implement Dynamic HMTL: the foundation of all interactive web pages still today.

In May 1998, the United States Department of Justice filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Microsoft, with the rising success of Internet Explorer as Exhibit #1 in its case. (If we had done a crummy job, Internet Explorer would never have gained significant market share, and the DOJ would have had to find some other pretext to sue Microsoft.)

In late 1998, IE became the most popular web browser in the world, and its market share hit a peak of 95% in 2004. Internet Explorer seemed unassailable.

The Fall of Internet Explorer

As Firefox (2004), the Apple iPhone (2007), Chrome and Android (both 2008) launched, IE started losing market share. By late 2012, Chrome had taken the crown as the most popular web browser. IE market share continued to decline, and Microsoft announced the new Edge browser (2015). By early 2020, Microsoft threw in the towel and announced they would use the [Google] Chromium Engine for Edge. Microsoft web browsing technology was dead.

What Happened?

When I started the IE team, my management chain was John Ludwig => Brad Silverberg => Paul Maritz => Mike Maples => Bill Gates.

John, Brad and I all realized that to compete on the web, not only did we have to have our own web browser, but we had to be on all the popular computers, too. So Brad hired a team of ex-Apple (Claris, actually) software engineers to build IE for the Macintosh, and first version was posted in April, 1996.

But when Steve Ballmer became CEO of Microsoft in 1999, his strategy was “Windows Windows Windows”. He decided to “play defense” and defend Windows and Office from the Internet. So the IE team was told to focus on Windows. The last version of IE for the Macintosh was release in 2003.

David Bank‘s 2001 book Breaking Windows: How Bill Gates Fumbled the Future of Microsoft explores the internal conflicts between what Banks called the “Windows Hawks” and the “Internet Doves” [though “Internet Bulls” would have been a better phrase]. Maples left Microsoft in 1995, and by 2000 the rest of us “Doves” — Paul, Brad, John, and me — had also left. So no one remained at Microsoft to argue with Steve Ballmer, and he continued to fight a losing battle, attempting to defend Windows from the inexorable rise of the Internet.

When new hardware platforms arose — Apple released its iPhone in 2007 and iPad in 2010, and Google released Android in 2008 — Internet Explorer was unavailable. Which sealed it’s fate.

(I could write an entire post about Microsoft’s failure in the mobile operating system market. Google mostly copied the “Windows” strategy with Android: selling their mobile OS to all comers. But the short answer is: Steve Ballmer hamstrung the internal “mobile OS” team with too many constraints from Windows. And the Windows team surely didn’t want a homegrown OS — at $10 a license — to compete with Windows: what if PC manufacturers wanted to save >$100 per PC and ship the mobile OS instead of Windows? Shades of the internal IBM Mainframe vs. PC struggles a decade earlier.)

Want to Learn More?

Case Study: Internet Explorer 1994-1997

Here is a brief slide presentation I put together for a talk to a class at Northwestern University on 4/15/1997:

Author: benslivka

19 start-ups, software, hardware, biotech, space launch, neurodiversity, learning, free markets, food, wine, cycling, walking, Seattle, Microsoft, Northwestern University, Garfield HS, DreamBox Learning, IBM, Amazon.

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