The Internet Explorer web browser quietly came to an end last week, removed from life support by Microsoft. Its shutdown was another moment at the end of an era.
However, IE should not become another forgotten piece of internet history. Ozymandias’ product line is an industry warning and a blueprint for regulatory action. So does the parallel story of how this browser nearly broke, but probably eventually saved, its maker Microsoft, one of the most powerful companies in technology.
By the time Microsoft pulled the plug, Internet Explorer had only 3.5 percent of the browser market share, according to several analysts. 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 by 2021, according to analyst Statista.
Chrome’s numbers look impressive, but only until you look at the historical numbers for Internet Explorer. At some point between 2002 and 2003, IE was the browser that more than 90 percent of us used. Internet Explorer used to be the Internet.
It also reigned longer than any other browser until its retirement last week, holding the dominant share of the market for an incredible 14 years, from early 1999 to late 2012.
Web designers danced to the tune of Microsoft and necessarily built their websites to IE standards. Compatibility with other browsers was usually an afterthought. And while IE reigned, parts of websites regularly ‘broke’ when viewed via Apple’s Safari or the Opera browser, for example.
An entire generation now has little or no memory of IE – today’s young adults would have been very small children during IE’s heyday. And they won’t remember the pivotal moment of Internet Explorer as the centerpiece of the last major antitrust lawsuit brought by the US Department of Justice against a major corporation at the turn of the millennium.
But a lot changed there – I’m advocating for better, not worse, for all of us, and for the tech industry. In a nutshell, the Microsoft antitrust case revolved around whether Microsoft acted as a bullying monopolist by “bundling” Internet Explorer with its PC operating system, Windows, which controlled a whopping 97 percent of all computing devices in 2000.
Netscape was the browser that almost everyone used until then. But once a laptop or PC came with a default browser, and people had to download an alternative and also change the settings to make it their new default choice, and also found that the alternative didn’t work smoothly on Windows, most people didn’t take the trouble . In 2001 Netscape’s share was negligible.
In July 2001, the US government found Microsoft guilty of abusing its dominant market position “because of the legal and technical restrictions it placed on the ability of PC manufacturers and users to remove Internet Explorer and use other programs such as Netscape and Java” . to Wikipedia.
A crucial detail of the case was that it found that “damage” to consumers went beyond price. Previously, antitrust prosecutions were aimed at controlling market prices. But IE was free. Suppressing competition by leveraging market dominance now became an antitrust marker. Today, with large companies based on “free” – Google, Facebook/Meta, Twitter, TikTok, etc. – this is important.
Immediately after the Microsoft decision, IE competitors emerged, including Firefox, Safari, Opera and Chrome. By 2009, Firefox had a third of the market with Chrome on the rise. By 2012, Chrome overtook 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 picture is even more varied when broken down into browser markets or device locations. According to Dublin-based analyst Statcounter, Apple’s Safari holds a whopping 36 percent of the Irish market and Chrome has 52 percent. Globally, Statcounter gives Safari 19 percent of the market on all devices – but it’s 38 percent on tablets, a market that Apple defined with the iPad.
Has the Microsoft antitrust decision spurred such market change? Many business and legal experts, including some who once thought not, now believe so because it opened up room for competition. One such figure, Harvard law professor David Yoffie, told the New York Times, “Google might never have emerged in its current form if Microsoft hadn’t been held back.”
Ironically, Google is now in the crosshairs of many antitrust advocates, for some of the same reasons: the multitude of free products that bind users to its lucrative data-gathering, ad-based ecosystem.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has not only weathered that antitrust bump, it has prospered. It has changed in some remarkable ways under different leadership and has created a huge new market in cloud computing. But as a great technology power, it will always have to be carefully examined.
The IP story shows (unlike the industry’s FUD) that antitrust laws can protect consumers, increase choice and promote competition.
And changing the way big tech operates, even at a fundamental level, could drive profitable innovation within the company that once bitterly fought and lost a decisive antitrust case.