Should Microsoft Dump Internet Explorer?

February 18th, 2010

Not so long ago, the question I’m asking in this column would be considered downright insane, and maybe it still us. But please take a look at the facts and maybe you’ll see where Microsoft needs to consider this matter very seriously.

In 1995, Microsoft released version 1.0 of Internet Explorer, an application derived from Spyglass Mosaic, a version of one of the original browsers. Through sleight of hand and outright deceit, Microsoft made IE number one on the planet and, in the process, kicked the sand over the slipping Netscape. Of course, the folks in Redmwond, WA also attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice and, later, the European Union.

In making its $150 million dollar investment in Apple, Microsoft’s co-founder and CEO at the time, Bill Gates, crafted an agreement with Steve Jobs to make IE the default browser on the Mac desktop.

Because they pretty much owned the browser market, Microsoft set aside serious development of Internet Explorer. Why bother, since they had no competition? They were happy to enforce their proprietary Web standards, such as the notoriously insecure ActiveX, and let the product languish.

I suspect they were blindsided by the fast ascendancy of Mozilla’s Firefox, the open source browser produced by a company that was built from the ashes of Netscape. After just a few years, Firefox market share exceeded 25% — and even more in some countries. Microsoft evidently took notice, so they created Internet Explorer 7, which was only slightly better than the previous version, 6.

More recently, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 8, said to, at last in part, adhere more closely to Web standards. While it is somewhat better than its predecessors, performance remains perfectly awful compared to any popular competitor. You wonder why they bother.

Over the years, when Microsoft essentially abandoned ongoing development of the Mac version of Internet Explorer, Apple created Safari, based on an open source rendering engine, KHTML, which then morphed into WebKit. The latter is freely available to other developers who want to build their own browsers. So WebKit powers Google Chrome and even the browser used in the latest Palm Pre smartphones, not to mention other mobile devices, even the ones not built by Apple.

But Microsoft has still taken its lumps at the hands of the European Union for making IE the default browser on the Windows desktop. More recently, they agreed to offer a ballot box on newly installed Windows desktops, which gives the user a choice of not just IE, but a number of others, including Apple Safari, Firefox, Google Chrome and Opera.

Microsoft is presently working on Internet Explorer 9, which they claim will deliver more competitive benchmarks, but few believe them.

Consider that more than a third of the browsers in use these days, according to current statistics, are not made by Microsoft, and there’s no evidence whatever that Internet Explorer is faring any better since the release of Windows 7. Even ahead of that browser ballot box for European customers, more and more people are just saying no to Microsoft. They are taking the time and trouble to download and install a competing product.

Indeed, the numbers might conceivably be higher, but most Windows users, particularly those who use their PCs at home, can’t or won’t bother to change any of the default setups, so they are hardly likely to go online to seek a new browser.

Since Microsoft’s control over Internet standards is rapidly diminishing, you have to wonder whether they’d do far better to simply give up on Internet Explorer or simply stamp the IE name on an open source version, perhaps based on WebKit, and be done with it. They could then redeploy most of the IE development team to more productive pursuits.

When you think about those rumors that Microsoft is working on a pact with Apple to move Bing onto the iPhone and iPad, you have to wonder what Apple might want in return, other than an appropriate cash payment. If a WebKit browser becomes the default on the Windows desktop that could, conceivably, take market share, and eyes for targeted ads, away from Google. Although Apple and Google both claim to be on cordial terms, nowadays the latter is more and more considered to be the enemy. Microsoft is regarded as a tired relic of the past that struggles without much success to remain relevant in a new world of online applications and mobile devices.

Certainly, Microsoft doesn’t need to waste time on a browser that most people only use because it’s there, not because it’s better. Unfortunately, if you can believe the recent published reports, their corporate culture is severely broken and logical decisions of this sort would elude them. Besides, giving up on IE would probably be considered an admission of defeat even if the name lived on with a different product.

But it wouldn’t be. It would just be a recognition of reality, so they can devote their considerable resources to more productive pursuits. However, the chances that it will ever happen remain mighty slim, and that’s just unfortunate.

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5 Responses to “Should Microsoft Dump Internet Explorer?”

  1. theLedger says:

    This won’t happen – Microsoft has too much invested in ActiveX technology and a lot of business applications depend on it. Although with the push to adopt open standards and the growing Mac popularity, particularly among influential people, that tide too will eventually turn. Ironically, it’s the advancing features of Microsoft’s own Silverlight that might cause the reliance on Internet Explorer to diminish.

  2. Kaleberg says:

    Does anyone really believe that the reason Internet Explorer is so awful, and no longer supported on the Mac, is because Microsoft has a shortage of software engineers? It isn’t an issue of MS finding resources to fix it. My take is that MS, like IBM in the 60s and 70s, has too many people working on its software. This means bureaucratic infighting, empire building, and code base sclerosis. To keep some semblance of control and force some output, upper management must be actively involved with breaking up log jams as groups argue about features, code ownership and implementation.

    I’m not saying MS doesn’t have any good people. They surely do. It’s just that they are trapped in an elephantine corporate web.

    Of course, a lot of this web was built as part of MS’s offense against Netscape. By adding proprietary features like ActiveX and extending and reinterpreting web standards, MS was able to take ownership of the internet, but only for a while. Once standards based browsers like Opera, Firefox and Safari started coming out, they began to take market share.

    In the 90s, IBM was intensely standards based. Their C compiler was a stickler, but it meant portability to and from the IBM RISC platform. That might seem like a problem. Who wants to let one’s customers escape to other platforms? On the other hand, it means customers could come in from elsewhere, and no customer was going to consider a platform that didn’t support the standards when so many others did. No one wanted to get trapped.

  3. John Dingler says:

    We don’t need Explorer, especially since MS created it vengefully as well as to use its monopoly position to hatefully stifle the competition, finally to kill it off, and certainly not to improve the computer browsing experience for us.

    In the US, monopolizing is legal but using the monopoly for purposes of predation is illegal. It was found in a court of law to be predatory, hence operating illegally, therefore illegal as a company. It still is. No wonder only a small minority has any like for the company.

    For these reasons, I would love to see it tuck its tail between its legs and run away with its imposing, buggy, non-standards-compliant IE. Good bye already.

  4. DaveD says:

    If I can recall, Microsoft bought Spyglass Mosaic and fashioned into Internet Explorer (IE) in the catch-up effort to be present on the web along side with the leader, Netscape. Microsoft cut off Netscape’s source of revenue at the knees by making their third-rate IE browser free. Netscape was charging $50 for its browser. It finally got “netscraped” when Microsoft tied IE into Windows 98 (Giving birth to the spam botnets. We have Microsoft to thank for giving us tons of spam to deal with.). Then trying to tell the federal court judge that it couldn’t undo IE without Windows 98 going bonkers (maybe because Microsoft successfully sold a bridge).

    At least with design of Windows Phone 7 Series, Microsoft can sometime think outside of the box though it still stumbles with naming. If Microsoft doesn’t drop IE then it is becoming a dinosaur. There are no dearth of web browsers. Heck, I have five on my Mac with Safari and Firefox as the main ones. Microsoft should follow Apple in this respect, drop old techs, product losers, and run a slim organization.

    Maybe Microsoft doesn’t want to drop IE because it would break Windows. Hey, it’s just a thought.

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