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The Rise and Decline of Internet Explorer

May 22, 2021 3:50 AM 5 min read

The Internet Explorer is ending its exploration. 

Microsoft announced that it is retiring the once-omnipresent browser and would focus instead on promoting its newer and improved browser called Edge. The Internet Explorer 11 desktop application will "go out of support" w.e.f. June 2022, the company says. 

Starting off as a coveted product of the Windows era, the Internet Explorer saw elevation to market dominance for a while followed by gradual decline in popularity and use. A decline that stemmed from the entry of slicker and craftier players such as Chrome, Safari and Firefox.

Internet Explorer's own eroding speed over the years hasn't helped either, rather turned it into the subject of countless memes, most likely made on other browsers. ;) 

Let us delve into the story of internet browsers and their operational models while trying to understand how a product of the internet age like the Explorer is hanging up its boots when others are fastening theirs. 

Browser History Restored

The world's first web browser, WorldWideWeb, was developed in 1990 by Tim Berners-Lee, who modelled it during his years working at the CERN and imagined a public way to access the internet. But his browser could only handle text. 

This was rectified by Mosaic, a new browser that could handle graphics along with texts. Replete with slicker design, Mosaic probably did more to popularise the internet than any other software at the time. 

Soon, the leading creators of Mosaic left and started a separate venture called Netscape whose flagship browser called Navigator took over the market quickly and captured over 95% browser market share by 1995. 

That is when Microsoft, the breakout tech giant of the time, realised it could no longer sit on the sidelines. Especially when it held a huge advantage in its own kit by controlling most of the world's operating systems in those days. That saw the birth of Internet Explorer in 1994. One year later, Microsoft bundled it within the Windows 95 OS suite. 

The following days not only saw increasing rivalry between Microsoft and Netscape but also a revolution in internet utility as these so-called "browser wars" put the Web in the hands of millions of PC users worldwide. Microsoft, benefitting from the reach of its OS and the bundling deals it made with original equipment manufacturers, emerged as the winner, unseating Netscape and peaking the browser market share at 93% in 2003.


The Evangelisation of the Web

What is the most possible outcome to expect if one starts grabbing disproportionate market share in a fast-emerging market by dethroning established adversaries? 

A lawsuit. 

Along with users, Microsoft also attracted the scrutiny of the US government that brought antitrust charges against the company. Why? Because it prevented computer makers from uninstalling Internet Explorer and installing other browsers. Even though the case didn't quite turn out in Microsoft's favour, it still continued its dominance. 

That is, until the advent of Firefox, a product of AOL which acquired Netscape in 1998 and developed the Mozilla project. The Mozilla project set a new standard in the browser industry because it cultivated on the legacy left behind by Netscape. The legacy of delicensing its browser and releasing its source code to the public prior to being taken over by AOL.

What does that mean? 

The internet, as we know it today, is built on a public collaborative system. Due to large public interest involved, sometimes the codes that softwares are built on are released universally for unrestricted use and modification. Netscape's source code was thus used in the creation of many other browsers (Firefox, SeaMonkey, Thunderbird, KompoZer etc.). Chromium, another open source codebase developed by Google, was used in the making of Chrome, Brave, Opera, Vivaldi and even Microsoft's browser Edge.


The Retreat of the Explorer

Although Microsoft has now embraced the open-source philosophy, there was a time when the company and its executives weren't as receptive to it, some even calling it "the destroyer of intellectual property". 

This is understood in the context of Internet Explorer's declining market share in the first decade of the millennium. Netscape may have lost the browser wars to Microsoft but its source code liberation, in a way, dug the hole for Internet Explorer's eventual demise. 

By 2005, Firefox had pulled away many of Explorer's users and captured 10% of the market. Google Chrome joined the rally in 2008 and swept the field by pocketing more than 60% of the browser market share in under a decade. Then came Safari, which was originally meant for proprietary use in Macs. But with the increasing dominance of iPhones, Safari grabbed almost a quarter of the mobile browser market. 

The rest of the damage was done by Internet Explorer itself with frequently-erupting malfunctions and security issues. It was an indication of the browser's inability to keep up with the changing face of technology, something Microsoft acknowledged itself when it launched Edge.

But the question arises, if open sourcification contributed to Explorer's decline and non-commercialised the codebases, how did it help other browsers thrive? In short, how exactly do these browsers make money? Or do they? 

Yes, they do. The biggest way is through royalties or advertising revenues. In 2018, Firefox fetched $451m in revenues, 95% of which came from royalties. There are also sponsorships (for tabs and other browser features) and partnership deals. For instance, in 2014, Mozilla agreed to make Google the default search engine on its browser. 

Chrome's revenues are more difficult to assess as Google doesn't always report revenues individually for all product categories. However, with close to 310 million users globally, Chrome maintains an intrinsic presence in desktops operating systems like Windows, OS X, Linux and in smartphone systems like Android and iOS. 

Google's revenues are, in fact, largely internalised. Let's put it this way. Everytime people use Chrome, they are likely to use a related Google service, like Gmail, Google Search, Google Docs etc. Since its products are heavily integrated with each other, the browser traffic (which determines the size of ad revenues) remains within its own suite and networks. Microsoft's Edge does the same too, by directing people to its Bing Search engine.


The Browser Games

Internet Explorer now enjoys a market share of 0.71%. It would be fair to say that today's (and the future's) internet largely belongs to Chrome on the desktop and Safari on smartphones (with iPhones' burgeoning market presence). 

But this puts things into perspective since decreasing market competition has often meant increasing Big Tech authority and privacy invasion. The ads which have driven browser revenues for so long are being increasingly scripted and tailored to user preferences, thanks to rampant data tracking by the browsers (Incognito Mode included!). 

Firefox has a slight edge in this regard, considering Mozilla's operation as a non-profit and a few tracking-evasion tools it employs to increase privacy protection. But until sterner data privacy norms come into picture, user concerns about how to keep their data out of browsers' hands will remain abound. 


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