Internet Explorer is dead – A look back at Microsoft’s browser history
After nearly 27 years, Microsoft is killing off Internet Explorer, its in-house web browser that’s now the subject of memes and parody Twitter accounts about how slow it is. Indeed, it’s been a long and bumpy road for the legacy browser, and it’s a symbol of the company that Microsoft used to be.
For a while, it worked. Microsoft was famously sued for bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, claiming anti-trust practices. That allowed Microsoft to have the dominant usage share in web browsers, despite Netscape being technologically superior in many ways.
In 2003, Internet Explorer had 95% usage share, but Mozilla Firefox launched in 2004 and Google Chrome launched in 2008.
Indeed, bundling software with an operating system is a great way to get people to use that software. In fact, one could argue that you’d actually have to try to get the majority of customers to switch to something that they’d have to acquire externally. That’s exactly what happened though. Internet Explorer eventually became known as the Google Chrome installer, because when you’d set up a new PC, the first thing you’d do was open up IE, install Chrome, and never touch that blue E ever again.
Internet Explorer 1
Internet Explorer was the creation of Thomas Reardon, and it was released as part of Microsoft Plus! for Windows 95, a $49.99 software bundle that included the “Internet Jumpstart Kit”, a game called Space Cadet Pinball, and some utilities like DriveSpace 3 and Compression Agent. The team consisted of six people, which is no surprise given the state of the web on August 16, 1995, the date that Microsoft Internet Explorer launched.
Shortly after that, Internet Explorer 1.5 was released, adding support for tables. This is also when Microsoft started bundling it with Windows NT, which meant that it didn’t have to pay some licensing fees to a company that Microsoft was accused of lifting source code from.
Internet Explorer 2
Things moved pretty quickly, as Internet Explorer 2 was released on November 22, 1995. In fact, there was an IE 2 beta in October, so that was just a couple of months after the original version came out. There are some notable things here. While the first version was just for Windows 95 and later Windows NT, Internet Explorer 2 added support for the older Windows 3.1, and Macintosh System 7.0.1.
Internet Explorer 2.1 arrived for Mac in April 1996, and it had support for embedding AVI, QuickTime, AIFF, MIDI, and WAV files in webpages.
Internet Explorer 3
Fast-forward to August 13, 1996, as that’s when Internet Explorer 3 was released. It was also the first version of the browser that I used personally, although more specifically, that was Internet Explorer 3.02. While Internet Explorer 2 was the first version to be supported on Macs, this was the first one to be bundled with Macs, and that came with Mac OS 8.
At this point, IE was still trying to catch up to Netscape, and it’s where competition between the two started to heat up. One thing that was added in IE3 was support for CSS, or Cascading Stylesheets. Also there was support for ActiveX and frames, stuff that you really don’t hear about anymore. Frames was a way to essentially render two webpages in one, so you would have one frame as a navigation bar and one frame for content, so when you clicked a link in navigation, only the content would have to load.
It was also big on bundled software. IE3 came with Internet Mail and News, Windows Address Book, Microsoft Comic Chat, RealPlayer, NetMeeting, and Windows Media Player. Obviously, most of those don’t exist anymore.
Internet Explorer 4
Released in September 1997 for Windows, January 1998 for Mac, and March 1998 for Unix, Internet Explorer is when the so-called browser wars really started to heat up. Today, it would be unimaginable for an operating system to ship without a web browser. After all, all of our software is downloaded. We’d be lost without one. In 1998, no one was getting the gigabit speeds that we see now. Back then, we had dial-up. I still remember waiting for images to load. Forget about trying to stream video or downloading software. That was a long way away.
I try to paint that picture because it’s a completely different landscape. Sure, you could download software from some sites and it would take forever. After all, we had Napster around then. But the point is, obtaining software took time and work. Bundling a web browser with Windows 98 meant people were going to use it, because the alternative was going to a store and buying Netscape, which means having to take action and pay money.
I know what you’re thinking: What about bloatware? The 90s were huge for bloatware. No one knew what to do with their computers back then (again, people barely knew what the internet was and AOL was trying to get people to use keywords because no one understood URLs), and software vendors wanted their stuff on new PCs, so any new PC would come with loads of third-party software. So, why didn’t Netscape just get OEMs to bundle their browser with Windows?
Microsoft wasn’t having it. The Redmond firm strongly incentivized OEMs to help grow Internet Explorer, and actively tried to stop them from bundling Netscape, even keeping them from displaying another browser’s icon on the desktop.
This is where the United States Justice Department got involved. In late 1999, it was actually found that Microsoft was acting as a monopoly. The next year, the court ordered that Microsoft must be split into two: one company to make Windows, and another company to make software. Microsoft appealed and in 2001, it was no longer under the obligation to break up.
Back to Internet Explorer 4 itself, it added support for Active Desktop, which let HTML content be added to the desktop. Back around this time, Microsoft was thinking about using HTML everywhere, although markup languages like that didn’t show up in apps until later. It was bundled with Microsoft Chat 2.0, Outlook Express, NetMeeting, FrontPage Express 2.0, and RealPlayer.
This is also when the Trident engine debuted, and that’s the browser engine that was used for the rest of IE’s life.
Internet Explorer 5
Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 launched on March 18, 1999. Since there was a lot new in Internet Explorer 4, such as HTML4 support, a lot of IE5 had to do with ironing out some kinks, such as improved CSS2 support. There were still new features though, such as AutoComplete, Hotmail integration, offline Favorites, the ability to save pages as MHTML, a History Explorer Bar, and a Search Explorer Bar.
On Windows, IE5 required a minimum of an Intel 486DX processor, along with 37MB RAM. For Mac, you needed a PowerPC processor and 8MB RAM; however, this wasn’t actually the version that ended support for 68k processors. That came with Internet Explorer 4.5.
Internet Explorer 6
Internet Explorer 6 was released on August 24, 2001, making 2000 the first calendar year when there was no new Internet Explorer release. It was the last one we’d see until 2006. It’s also the first one that wasn’t available for Mac. Microsoft’s deal with Apple had expired, and the Cupertino firm moved on with its in-house Safari browser.
IE6 came with a redesign, as it was released shortly before Windows XP. As we know, Windows XP had a radical redesign of its own, called Luna. As we’ve seen from other OS UX overhauls, software tends to get a new look as well. There were also improvements to Dynamic HTML and CSS.
This era was peak Internet Explorer. In the five years that IE6 was the current version of the browser, it reached 90% usage share, with IE as a whole reaching 95%. By this time, Netscape had been bought by AOL, although there continued to be Netscape-branded browsers through 2008.
IE6 was the last version of the browser to be offered independently of Windows. Moving forward, Internet Explorer would just come with Windows. These days, we’re used to our browsers updating themselves when we’re not looking. It was a different era back then, and you’d have to actually choose to update your browser to something newer, or you could choose not to. Making it part of Windows streamlined the process of upgrading people.
Internet Explorer 7
Internet Explorer 7 was released on October 18, 2006, and Internet Explorer 6 was still the most popular version of IE for a year after that. This release was a milestone, as it was the first one to introduce tabs. Today, it’s hard to imagine what a web browser might have even been like without tabs. Another key new feature was support for RSS. The first operating system to have it pre-installed was Windows Vista.
Internet Explorer 8
IE8 launched on March 19, 2009, and it was pre-installed on Windows 7 when the OS was released later that year. Like IE7, it was supported as far back as Windows XP SP2, and if you recall, Windows XP was the first version of Windows that just wouldn’t go away. It had a massive market share, and Microsoft actually had a hard time killing it when support ended in 2014. It was necessary for new software to support it.
This was the first version of Internet Explorer with InPrivate browsing. Basically, when you’re using InPrivate mode, things you do don’t end up in your browser history. This is something that’s common today, and the InPrivate brand still exists. Another introduction was SmartScreen. Whereas Phishing Filter checked websites against a list of known bad actors, SmartScreen Filter checked the website against a list of known benevolent sites, and if it wasn’t on the list, the site got sent to Microsoft.
Developer tools debuted with IE8, and that’s another example of a feature that we’d expect from a modern browser. Indeed, with older browsers, we talk about things like newer versions of HTML and CSS, but now we’re talking about features that still exist today. Dev tools could be used as a toolbar in IE6 and IE7, but they were integrated with the app in IE8. It allowed developers to debug websites from within the browser.
Internet Explorer 9
Unlike its three most recent predecessors and its three successors, Internet Explorer 9’s release didn’t coincide with a new version of Windows. It came out on March 14, 2011, supporting Windows Vista SP2, Windows 7, and Windows Phone 7.5.
The most notable feature has to be support for HTML5 and CSS3. These are the building blocks for the modern web. While HTML5 was introduced 14 years ago, it’s still in use today.
Internet Explorer 10
IE10 was released on September 4, 2012, alongside Windows 8. It also coincided with the launch of Microsoft’s Surface PC lineup, including the Surface RT and Surface Pro. While you could get it on Windows 7, the biggest change with Internet Explorer 10 was that it actually had two separate builds in Windows 8. There was the regular desktop Internet Explorer that we all knew and hated, and then there was a new Metro app. Metro was the new design style for Windows 8, but let’s back off a bit.
Let’s talk about Windows 8 as a whole, so you can better grasp what Metro was. Microsoft killed the Start Menu, the way users had been navigating their PCs since Windows 95. It replaced it with a Start Screen that consisted of tiles. One of those tiles was a desktop icon, which would bring you back to the desktop. If you launched a traditional Win32 app, it would launch on the desktop, and it would work exactly how you’d expect it to. When you’d launch a Metro app, which would typically come from the Windows Store, it would launch full-screen, and you had to manage it with gestures. There was no more X to close an app with Metro; you just had to know to drag the app down from the top of the screen.
Moreover, you couldn’t access Metro apps from the desktop environment. These two things were completely separate and totally jarring. But still, Microsoft had seen Apple’s revolution with the iPhone and later, the iPad. It knew that the future was touch, and just took a totally wrong approach.
Metro Internet Explorer was the one that would launch if you opened it from the Start Screen. If you opened it from the desktop, you’d get the classic Internet Explorer. If that sounds dumb, it’s because it was, but that’s not even the worst of it. If you changed your default browser, you’d never see Metro Internet Explorer again. Even opening it from the Start Screen would open the classic IE. It was totally bizarre.
IE10 was also the first to have Adobe Flash integration, rather than requiring the user to install an add-on. It was also the last to include the Windows Internet Explorer banding, which Microsoft had been using since IE7. Starting with IE11, it was just known as Internet Explorer.
Internet Explorer 11
Internet Explorer 11 launched on October 17, 2013, and it was included with Windows 8.1. By this time, it still had that odd behavior of two different apps that could launch depending on where you launched them from and what your default browser was. However, Windows had changed a lot. The attempt in Windows 8.1 was to fix Windows 8, so the familiar X was added to close Metro apps, the Start button was added back to bring you back to the Start Screen, and Metro apps could be accessed from the desktop environment. Windowed Metro apps didn’t come until Windows 10.
Most of the new features in IE11 were improvements, a big one being better support for high-DPI displays. High-resolution screens were new, and in a lot of different areas, it took Windows a while to catch up to that.
Microsoft Edge – Spartan
At Microsoft’s second Windows 10 announcement event, it announced Project Spartan, its next-generation web browser. It was set to have some innovative new features, like the ability to mark up webpages with a pen and save them. It was also going to have Cortana built in, and it would come with a new Reading View. It was also going to be faster.
Microsoft Edge launched on July 29, 2015 as part of Windows 10. Windows 10 in itself was a big change in how Windows was developed and distributed. After the 2014 debacle where the Redmond firm had so much trouble killing off Windows XP, it realized that it was just competing with itself. Windows 10 was announced as a free upgrade for all devices running Windows 7, Windows 8.1, and Windows Phone 8.1, although in the end, only a small subset of Windows Phones got the upgrade, but that’s a story for another time. With Windows 10, updates were going to be free for the lifetime of the device. Sure, you can still buy a copy of Windows off of a shelf, and you still pay a licensing fee when you buy a PC, but when you upgrade a licensed version of Windows, that would always be free.
The whole idea behind this fundamental strategy was to no longer compete with itself. When a new version of Windows would come out, it was only competing against an older version of the OS. Now, Microsoft wanted everyone to be on Windows 10, so that would never be an issue again. Because of this, Edge was the first new browser from Microsoft that wasn’t backward compatible with older versions of Windows. It was a Windows 10 exclusive.
When Project Spartan became Microsoft Edge, the logo was still a blue E, but it was changed. Indeed, Edge very much could have been Internet Explorer 12, but a rebrand was necessary because the IE name had become so tarnished over the years. The idea behind the new icon was to look different, but still be familiar enough for the users that only know how to click the blue E to get to the internet.
Microsoft Edge – Anaheim
Edge hadn’t picked up steam in the way that Microsoft had hoped. As it turned out, people weren’t using new features like marking up webpages, and frankly, the web is built for Chrome. Instead of trying to beat them, the Redmond firm decided to join them. In December 2018, Microsoft announced its intention to rebuild Edge from Google’s open-source Chromium, and public previews followed shortly after that. The browser was considered generally available on January 15, 2020, although it was missing a lot of key features, such as Arm64 support, history sync, and extension sync.
Codenamed Anaheim, Edge Chromium also marked the return of Microsoft making a cross-platform browser. The first was a return to the Mac, but it’s also available on Linux now, along with older versions of Windows going back to Windows 7. The new Edge also solves a key problem. Since it’s independent of the operating system, it can be updated more frequently. With Edge Legacy, it needed a Windows feature update, so it was getting updates every six months while Chrome was getting updates every six weeks.
That brings us to today. Windows 11 is the latest version of Windows, and as was promised back when Windows 10 was announced, it was a free upgrade. The system requirements changed, although to be fair, they hadn’t been changed since Windows 7, a necessity to make Windows 10 a free upgrade for all Windows 7 and 8.1 PCs.
Microsoft Edge is the browser to use, and one of the key features in it is IE Mode. Despite the fact that Microsoft has been warning us about the end of IE for years, some businesses still haven’t moved on, as it’s not a trivial task. Microsoft is handling this delicately, slowly pushing people over to IE Mode, which is basically an Internet Explorer tab in Edge.
But as of now, Internet Explorer is no longer getting any kind of security updates. The 25-year-old browser, for all intents and purposes, is dead.