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Internet Explorer’s legacy should be as a cautionary tale and blueprint

Browser’s legal travails nearly broke Microsoft but ultimately may have been good for it and its emerging rivals

The web browser Internet Explorer met a quiet end last week, removed from life support by Microsoft. Its mothballing was another end-of-an-era moment.

However, IE shouldn’t become another mostly-forgotten bit of internet history. Its Ozymandias product arc is an industry cautionary tale and regulatory action blueprint. So is the parallel story of how this browser nearly broke its creator Microsoft, one of the mightiest companies in technology – but probably ultimately also saved it.

By the time Microsoft pulled the plug, Internet Explorer only had, at best, 3.5 per cent of browser market share, according to various analyst companies. Most show that IE has been overtaken by Microsoft’s newer browser, Edge. By contrast, Google’s now-dominant Chrome browser had two-thirds of the market in 2021, according to analyst Statista.

Chrome’s figures look impressive, but only until you look at the historical figures for Internet Explorer. At one point between 2002 and 2003, IE was the browser more than 90 per cent of us used. Internet Explorer was the internet.

Until its retirement last week, it had also reigned for longer than any other browser, holding the dominant share of the market for an incredible 14 years, from the start of 1999 until the end of 2012.

Web designers danced to Microsoft’s tune and, of necessity, built their websites to IE’s standards. Compatibility with other browsers was typically an afterthought. And while IE ruled, parts of websites regularly “broke” when viewed through, say, Apple’s Safari or the Opera browser.

A whole generation now has little or no memory whatsoever of IE – today’s young adults would have been very small children during IE’s glory years. And they’ll have no recollection at all of Internet Explorer’s pivotal moment as the centre piece of the last major antitrust prosecution undertaken against a corporate giant by the US Department of Justice at the millennium’s turning.

But that was where much changed – I’d argue for better, not for worse, for all of us, and for the tech industry. In a nutshell, the Microsoft antitrust suit revolved around the issue of whether Microsoft was acting as a bullying monopolist in “bundling” Internet Explorer with its PC operating system, Windows, which controlled a breathtaking 97 per cent of all computing devices in 2000.

Default choice

Netscape was the browser nearly everyone used up until then. But once a laptop or PC came with a default browser, and people had to download an alternative and also change settings to designate it their new default choice, and also found the alternative didn’t work smoothly on Windows, most people didn’t bother. By 2001, Netscape’s share was negligible.

In July, 2001, the US government found Microsoft guilty of abusing its dominant market position “through the legal and technical restrictions it put on the abilities of PC manufacturers and users to uninstall Internet Explorer and use other programs such as Netscape and Java”, according to Wikipedia.

A critical detail of the case was that it determined “harm” to consumers went beyond price. Previously, antitrust prosecutions focused on market price control. But IE was free. Suppressing competition by leveraging a dominant market position now became an antitrust marker. Today, with huge companies based on “free” – Google, Facebook/Meta, Twitter, TikTok etc – this is important.

Immediately after the Microsoft decision, IE competitors popped up, including Firefox, Safari, Opera, and Chrome. By 2009, Firefox had a third of the market with Chrome emerging. By 2012, Chrome overtook IE and Firefox to become dominant, but never to IE’s extent (this excellent animation dramatically shows browser market changes from 1996-2019:)

The picture is even more varied when separated out into device browser markets or location. According to Dublin-based analyst Statcounter, Apple’s Safari has a huge 36 per cent of the Irish market and Chrome has 52 per cent. Worldwide, Statcounter gives Safari 19 per cent of the market on all devices – but it’s 38 per cent on tablets, a market Apple defined with the iPad.

Did the Microsoft antitrust decision propel such market change? Many business and legal experts, including some who once thought not, now believe it did because it opened up space for competition. One such figure, Harvard law professor David Yoffie, told the New York Times: “Google may have never emerged in its current form if Microsoft had not been restrained.”

Ironically, Google is in the sights of many antitrust proponents now, for some of the same reasons – the multitude of free products that tie users to its lucrative data-gathering, advertising-driven ecosystem.

Meanwhile, Microsoft not only weathered that antitrust blow, but prospered. It has changed in some notable ways under different leadership, and carved a huge new market in cloud computing. But as a major tech power, it will always require careful scrutiny.

The IE story demonstrates (contrary to industry FUD) that antitrust laws can protect consumers, increase choice, and promote competition.

And changing the way big tech operates, even at a fundamental level, can drive profitable innovation within the very company that once bitterly fought, and lost, a defining antitrust case.