Is it strange to feel nostalgic for a web browser, especially one you never liked, a product that in some ways encapsulated many of the worst sins of the tech industry?
Internet Explorer was finally shut down on June 15 after a 27-year existence, many of which were the most popular — or, in many countries, the only — browser in the world. The life cycle of a tech product often mirrors that of a cowboy on a dime. It starts as the upstart, an outlaw who roams the streets of the internet, breaking the rules and trying to take down his competitors. With success, it suddenly becomes the law in the city, defining order and even society on its own terms. But then, before it realizes something is happening, another bubbly new thing puts it down.
As is often the case with both technology and business, Explorer’s success was based on the original sin of theft. In 1995, Microsoft, seeing that browsing was a thing and its main player, Netscape, had nothing above its capital, wanted it in. But instead of creating something of its own, Microsoft licensed someone else’s design.
From the start, the software was pretty awful – slow, buggy, and ugly. Netscape was a much more attractive and user-friendly product. But when Microsoft made the decision to bundle Explorer with its ubiquitous Windows 95 operating system, Explorer became the default browser of the world and Netscape’s virtues no longer mattered.
At that point, Microsoft stopped most of its payments to the company it bought its browser from, arguing that since Explorer was free, it no longer had any profits to share. Microsoft would eventually have to pay $8 million to the company it defrauded.
I’ve never liked Explorer or Windows. The software seemed to be constantly updating and still broke regularly. It seemed like Microsoft never cared about customer satisfaction either. It didn’t really have to; their software was on every computer. We had nowhere else to go. In 1997, the company faced a federal lawsuit alleging that bundling Explorer with Windows 95 constituted a monopoly because it attempted to force PC owners to use Explorer. The case almost forced the company to set up a separate company for the operating system and other software.
At a recent staff meeting, I asked anyone who liked Explorer to tell me why. The whole room laughed at the idea. Obviously, you’re unlikely to miss it.
Is it strange to feel nostalgic for a web browser, especially one you never liked?
Still, a browser’s demise seems to make sense, even if the browser was terrible. Explorer was for a while the way we entered what was then called the World Wide Web. It was both the window through which we could glimpse that universe and the vehicle we were driving in. It may have been a lot more Edsel than Trans Am, but it was still our ride, for many of us our very first ride, and even in its own bumpy form it changed the way we saw our lives.
Today, browsers have playful technical names, such as Chrome or Firefox, and sell themselves for their sleek designs, privacy controls, and interconnectivity. Anything to distract us from the fact that most of them make money selling the information they gather by watching us use their product. (Personally, I can’t understand why anyone would choose a browser owned by a company whose business is built on mining everything we search, view, and buy, and yetapparently about 80 percent of computer users do that†
In the early days, the naked capitalism of the tech world might have been more apparent, the indolence and arrogance that comes with market share. But the aspiration was also clearer and more innocent. The internet was an endless landscape to us, and all we wanted to do was sit down and explore. To all those early Edsels who helped us start our journey.