The Internet Explorer browser came to a quiet end last week, removed from Microsoft’s life support. Its mothballs were another moment at the end of an era.
However, IE should not become yet another mostly forgotten piece of internet history. Its Ozymandias product arc is a warning story and a plan for regulatory action. Such is the parallel story of how this browser almost broke its creator Microsoft, one of the most powerful companies in technology – but probably also saved it.
When Microsoft pulled the plug, Internet Explorer had at best only 3.5 percent of the browser’s market share, according to various analysts. Most show that IE has been overtaken by Microsoft’s newer browser, Edge. However, 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 that more than 90 percent of us used. Internet Explorer where internet.
Until retirement last week, it had also ruled longer than any other browser and held the dominant market share for an incredible 14 years, from early 1999 to late 2012.
Web designers danced to the tune of Microsoft and of necessity built their websites according to IE standards. Compatibility with other browsers was usually a reflection. And while IE ruled, parts of websites were regularly “broken” when viewed through, for example, Apple’s Safari or Opera browser.
An entire generation now has little or no memory of IE – today’s young adults would have been very young children during IE’s heyday. And they will have no recollection of the Internet Explorer’s crucial moment as the centerpiece of the last major antitrust attempt against a corporate giant by the US Department of Justice at the turn of the millennium.
But that was where a lot changed – I would argue for better, not worse, for all of us and for the technology industry. In a nutshell, Microsoft’s antitrust process revolved around the question of whether Microsoft acted as a bullying monopolist by “packing” Internet Explorer with its PC operating system, Windows, which controlled a staggering 97 percent of all computer devices in 2000.
Netscape was the browser that almost everyone used until then. But when a laptop or PC came with a standard browser, and people had to download an option and even change settings to set it to their new default choice, and even found that the option did not work smoothly on Windows, most did not care if . In 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 placed on the ability of PC makers and users to uninstall Internet Explorer and use other programs such as Netscape and Java”, according to Wikipedia .
A critical detail in the case was that it established that the “injury” to consumers went beyond the price. Previously, the antitrust charges focused on market price control. But IE was free. Suppressing competition by exploiting 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 Microsoft’s decision, IE competitors emerged, including Firefox, Safari, Opera, and Chrome. In 2009, Firefox had a third of the market with Chrome on the way. In 2012, Chrome bypassed IE and Firefox to become dominant, but never to the extent of IE (this excellent animation shows dramatic changes in the browser market from 1996-2019 🙂
The image is even more varied when separated in device browser markets or location. According to Dublin-based analyst Statcounter, Apple’s Safari has a huge 36 percent of the Irish market and Chrome’s 52 percent. Globally, Statcounter Safari gives 19 percent of the market on all devices – but that’s 38 percent on tablets, a market that Apple defined with the iPad.
Did Microsoft’s antitrust decision drive such a change in the market? Many business and legal experts, including some who once did not believe, now believe that it did so because it opened up space for competition. One such person, Harvard Law Professor David Yoffie, told the New York Times: “Google might never have appeared in its current form if Microsoft had not been restrained.”
Ironically, Google is targeting many antitrust advocates now, for some of the same reasons – the amount of free products that bind users to its lucrative data collection, advertising-driven ecosystems.
At the same time, Microsoft not only managed that antitrust battle, but prospered. It has changed in some remarkable ways under different leaderships and created a huge new market in cloud-based computing. But as a major technical force, it will always require careful scrutiny.
IE history shows (in contrast to the industry’s RD & D) that antitrust laws can protect consumers, increase choice and promote competition.
And changing how big technology works, even at a basic level, can drive profitable innovation in the very company that once bitterly fought and lost a crucial antitrust case.
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