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Should Microsoft Dump Internet Explorer?

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.