The highs and (mostly) lows of Internet Explorer

As rumours continue to circulate about the demise of IE, we chart the few highlights and regular nadirs of Microsoft’s browser

Internet Explorer is dead! Or at least clinging on, life-support style! Possibly! 

In fact, recent rumours about Spartan and elaboration on Microsoft’s own IEBlog don’t actually confirm what’s next for the company’s famous browser. Has Microsoft done all it can by turning IE up to 11? Or will we get IE 12, albeit with new guts, features and sensibilities, while its predecessor also lurks on new PCs, due to ‘legacy compatibility’?  

We don’t know. (Sorry.) But what we do know is that Internet Explorer has a long and varied history that deserves delving into, if this is indeed the end.

Here are Stuff’s standout moments for Microsoft’s browser…

Being born (1995)

Internet Explorer arrived in 1995. For some context, this was a time when most people used painfully slow dial-up modems, and search engines were manually curated. The app itself was a reworked Mosaic - itself released only two years earlier - and was unsurprisingly rather basic in terms of features.

Microsoft didn’t dawdle, though: IE 2 (the first version also for Mac) arrived within months, and then IE 3 within a year. But Microsoft hadn’t quite gone for the jugular yet…  

Assimilation (1997)

Internet Explorer was originally a standalone web browser, but with IE 4, the distinction between browser and operating system was significantly muddied.

Windows Explorer was replaced (on the user’s OK - although you wonder how many realised what was happening) with what was essentially a web browser.

Plenty of people grumbled and said how totally stupid it was to turn a file browser into a web browser; yet over subsequent years, file browsers took on many web browser features, and now we often browse file systems in web browsers (such as Dropbox), so there you go. 

Mac attack (1997)

“We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft had to lose,” said Steve Jobs at Macworld 1997. Shortly thereafter, the face of Bill Gates loomed over the entire stage, and it was revealed Apple and Microsoft were to enter into a partnership.

Microsoft bought US$150 million in Apple shares, and IE became the default Mac browser, ousting Netscape.  

Gates, to be fair, noted IE 5 for Mac was “not just a port” of the Windows product, but a new and feature-rich Mac-like app. But it didn’t last - IE for Mac stagnated, and eventually stunk up the place, regularly locking up Mac OS. IE for Mac was finally put out of its misery for good in 2003, six months after the debut of Apple’s Safari.  

The browser wars (late 1990s)

If you were a web designer during the late 1990s, any mention of the browser wars will probably make you want to curl up in a ball and hide in the corner. The two dominant browsers, Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, traded blows, and IE used the backing of Microsoft to further bolster its presence, via licensing agreements and through being the Windows default (during the Mac’s lowest ebb); unlike its commercial rival, IE was also free.  

Web designers fumed and wailed as new releases of each arrived with proprietary tech and treated the web in vastly different ways. The Web Standards Project later cleaned up the mess, but not before Netscape was effectively dead and IE totally dominant.  

Everything’s (a) fine (2009)

Microsoft’s aggressive actions that went on throughout the late 1990s and beyond did not go unnoticed. What began as a 1993 complaint about anti-competitive practices from Novell evolved into a smackdown by the EU.

In 2004, Microsoft received a whopping fine regarding bundling apps with Windows, and this line of thinking eventually reached browsers. In 2009, the EU finally and belatedly investigated IE itself effectively being a part of Windows and how that could harm competition.

By that December, Microsoft started to provide a selection box of browser icons in a random order, enabling users to choose the one they wanted. Brilliantly, this then vanished from Windows for over a year, despite Microsoft reporting otherwise, and the EU finally decided it’d had enough and slapped the company with a €561 million fine. 

The final countdown (2011)

As the 2000s rolled on, IE 6 morphed from merely being a browser people didn’t like to the most hated browser in history. It still had insanely high usage figures, but was holding back the web, due to a lack of support for advanced web standards that modern web apps relied on.

Some started cutting support, with a ‘hang the consequences’ attitude. Having perhaps seen one too many ‘IE must die’ websites, Microsoft made its own,, urging people to upgrade. Naturally, wily designer Josef Richter then created his own countdown sites for newer IE releases, noting that they were still rubbish compared to rival products.  

Playing the game (2012)

By the time Internet Explorer 9 arrived, Microsoft was trying to bolster its browser’s tattered reputation, which had been battered by the browser wars, and barely improved with the reasonable IE 8.

IE 9 had great standards-support and decent performance, and how better to prove that than with a bunch of browser games? Rather than foist something simple on the masses, Microsoft went all-out, porting one of the most famous, popular and playable mobile games of the time - Cut The Rope - to HTML5.

Later, Microsoft went one better, partnering with Clarity Consulting to bring beautiful physics puzzler and ground-warper Contre Jour to the browser.  

No longer being number-one - possibly (2012 onwards)

It’s impossible to entirely accurately measure browser marketshare, but we can say with some certainty IE had almost all of it at one point. By the mid-2000s, most estimates put IE on well over a 90% share, leaving mere scraps for rivals. Then Firefox arrived and slowly took chunks out of Microsoft’s lead, before Google Chrome arrived in a blaze of glory.

We’ve since seen numerous claims Chrome’s now the world’s most popular browser, leaving Internet Explorer languishing in second place. And even the most positive estimates of IE’s share show it’s no longer nearly as dominant as it once was.  

Perhaps ironically, this change happened at the point the browser finally became good again. IE 10 was smart, fast and had great ideas, such as the means to pin sites to the Windows task-bar. IE 11 was similarly effective in terms of performance and usability. We can only hope Spartan apes its more recent ancestors rather than wanting to party like it’s 1999.