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The rapid rise and slow fall of the Microsoft web browser

Almost 25 years after it fended off Netscape, Microsoft is embracing technology from Chrome rather than fighting it—a move that’s both smart and shocking.

The rapid rise and slow fall of the Microsoft web browser
In 1995, Microsoft launched Internet Explorer to take on this software phenom. [Photos: Flickr user OiMax; pilcas/iStock]

The internet recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, but the browser that really jump-started the consumer rise of the global hypertext system was 1994’s Netscape Navigator—or simply “Netscape,” as it was more commonly known. Its existential threat to Microsoft prompted an epic war that led Microsoft to dominate desktop browsers with its Internet Explorer. But after years of slipping relevance, Microsoft’s Edge browser–a late attempt at a fresh start for the company–has succumbed to the code base of its more successful competitor, Google’s Chrome. The switch marks the end of an era in which Microsoft was obsessed with dominating web access and had the means to do so.

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In Netscape’s early days, websites were mostly inscrutable text interspersed with slow-loading and static GIFs. But Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen accurately envisioned a far more capable web that could rival desktop platforms. He predicted a future in which browsers defined the computing experience and Windows was reduced to “a poorly debugged set of device drivers,” the basic software plumbing that allows computer components to recognize each other. (In a 2012 Wired Interview, Andreessen credited Ethernet inventor and 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe with originating that bit of snark.)

As the grammar-defying saying goes, them’s was fighting words. In 1995, the year that Netscape had a blockbuster IPO, the sleeping giant logged on. Bill Gates issued an internal manifesto that painted a target on Netscape’s back with the launch of a rival browser: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Unlike Netscape, IE was free for all users and integrated with Windows as a native rendering engine, similar to how Safari is built into the iPhone today.

The ensuing years saw websites ally with the warring software companies, displaying little badges announcing optimization for one browser or another, or sometimes both. Eventually, Microsoft attracted government scrutiny for its browser bundling of the browser in the U.S. and Europe; the EU forced the company to offer a version of Windows that did not include IE as a default. But despite such controversies, IE’s market share kept rising, eventually reaching 95%.

Within four years of IE’s launch, Netscape was sold to AOL, mostly for the value of the default homepage traffic that it had amassed during its run as a dominant browser. Even before that happened, Netscape had open-sourced the Netscape code and placed in the care of a nonprofit dubbed Mozilla, which used it as the basis of Firefox.

New rivals

With little competition, IE grew bloated and slow and became a frequent target for hackers. The situation boiled over with the release of IE 6, Windows XP’s browser, in 2001. News of its vulnerabilities enabled Firefox to make a meaningful cut into Microsoft’s browser share. But the far greater threat was to come from a new wave of powerful smartphones. While Microsoft grossly underestimated the iPhone and its integrated Safari browser, Apple was at least a familiar competitor. Microsoft knew that its longtime competitor would never reach dominant market share on the desktop.

Like Apple, though, Microsoft didn’t realize that Google had ambitions far beyond its search engine. Following in Netscape’s footsteps, Google took on Microsoft on its home turf by releasing a homegrown browser for Windows, Chrome, in 2008. Chrome blew away Windows’ built-in browser when it came to speed and security, and rapidly ate away at the market share of both IE and Firefox. Later, with ChromeOS, Google would achieve what several Netscape-era companies had proposed: a viable web-centric operating system that could replace Windows-based devices for mainstream users. While ChromeOS has seen its greatest success by far in cheap education-focused Chromebooks, Google keeps pushing it into new markets such as tablets and has prompted Microsoft to embark on yet another lighter-weight version of Windows, unofficially called Windows Lite.

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Chrome gained considerable initial traction on the technical merits of its desktop offering. But IE’s fate was sealed when Google brought its browser to its own mobile juggernaut, Android, an operating system it had bought to help ensure that it didn’t turn into another Netscape. As Android came to dominate mobile devices, Chrome achieved an overall share of around two-thirds of the browser market according to most studies.

Microsoft, meanwhile, was dealing with poor consumer reaction to the split personalities of Windows 8. Outgunned on the desktop and outplayed on mobile, Microsoft retired IE in favor of Edge, its new browser for Windows 10. With Edge, Microsoft was again faced with the task of building a browser’s share up from zero. The difference was that Windows was no longer the leading computing platform as it had been in the 1990s:  Android now controls about 85% of the global smartphone market, creating a protective wall around Chrome.

A last gasp

A leap beyond IE in usability, Edge was well received. However, it didn’t do much to displace Chrome, despite Microsoft bringing it to iOS and Android and instituting nagging messages within Windows to use Edge, which Microsoft claims has recaptured the speed title from Chrome. Meanwhile, web developers focused on making sure that their sites worked well in Chrome, the market leader—much as they had done for IE in the 1990s.

And so, 25 years after licensing IE’s initial browser code from early web player Spyglass, Microsoft is changing Edge’s browser core to Chromium, the open source browser that Chrome is based on, in order to be able to create better compatibility with modern websites. The transplanting process is expected to last many months and will require Microsoft to work to integrate code into the Google-dominated Chromium codebase. It signals a major retreat from what was once Microsoft’s dominance of the web. However, Microsoft’s embrace of Chromium will help it deliver Edge to more platforms–including MacOS and older versions of Windows–while making it a stronger competitor to the browser that knocked it from its roost.

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About the author

Ross Rubin is founder and principal analyst at Reticle Research. He has been covering consumer technology and innovation for two decades.

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