The rise, fall, and rehabilitation of Internet Explorer

dean hachamovich ie9 event

Then-Internet Explorer boss Dean Hachamovich at the launch event for IE9.

Credit: Microsoft

The browser that had it all, then lost its way

Windows XP is dying, and with it the last of IE 6 -- a browser that went from being ahead of its time to a fossilized platform holding companies back. With IE 10 and 11, "the browser you love to hate" seems like a modern browser that’s discriminated against more for reasons of history and loyalty than for any real technical reasons. But you can’t always ignore history and start from scratch, especially when you realize how much Microsoft had in its grasp in the 1990s and how much of the web platform Google and Mozilla have brought us since it let slip through its fingers back then.

Why were there so many missed opportunities? Why did IE drop the ball, what made Microsoft wake up to the potential of the Web -- and will IE be able to stay modern in the world of living standards that never stop changing?

Part One: The browser that ruled the web

In the kind of irony that has affected Microsoft disturbingly often during its history, the company was early to the party -- then changed its mind and went home before the cool kids arrived.

Stranded on the Cornell university campus at the end of a recruiting trip in February 1994 by a snow storm, Steven Sinofsky -- then technical assistant to Bill Gates -- wandered through the computing rooms to find students using not Microsoft Office and other desktop software but web browsers. He emailed Gates and his team a warning; Cornell is WIRED!

That got more attention than J Allard’s memo the previous month which he’d titled "Windows: the next killer application for the Internet." Allard had been trying to get Microsoft to take the Internet seriously since he joined the company in 1991, and created the company’s first Internet server as part of a skunkworks project. He thought Microsoft should build its own browser and tried to convince Russell Siegelman to base Microsoft’s planned MSN service on web technologies rather than a proprietary system.

Rob Glaser, who had successfully got Microsoft into multimedia, was suggesting the same thing but when Siegelman suffered serious illness, he decided not to push the MSN team to decide in his absence. That turned out to be an expensive decision in the long run, but the Internet enthusiasts had caught Gates’s attention. At an executive retreat in April 1994, Gates and other key Microsoft executives argued their way through a 300-page briefing put together by Sinofsky, and Gates spent his annual Think Week retreat concentrating on the Internet.

The problem was that Gates didn’t see how you could make money from the Internet. The group at the retreat decided to add TCP/IP support to Windows 95 and give Word the option of saving documents as Web pages, but nothing more radical. That soon came to look like a mistake as Sun worked on Java, promising a future where the web could deliver programs to any computer, and PDF started to replace Word files on the internet as a way of distributing documents. Both Windows and Office began to look threatened. Bill Gates’s famous Internet Tidal Wave memo came out in May 1995, just a few days after Sun launched Java, and in November 1995 Goldman Sachs took Microsoft off its "buy" list because of the Internet threat.

In fact, Microsoft had already started work on its own browser, first trying to buy the BookLink browser Sinofsky spotted at the Comdex show in 1994 only to see AOL snap it up for $30 million, then licensing code from Spyglass who had the rights to NCSA Mosaic -- the very first graphical browser, built by graduate students who worked for Larry Smarr.

Then the head of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, now running the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology and a pioneer in quantified health, Smarr remembers pitching businesses on the huge potential web browsing might have for them -- if only it had a graphical interface.

Everyone has heard of one of Smarr’s students who worked on the Mac version of NCSA Mosaic: Marc Andreessen, who went on to found Netscape with SGI’s ex-leader Jim Clark. They set up the company the day after the Microsoft executive retreat, and originally called it Mosaic Communications Corporation until Spyglass’s lawyers pointed out that they owned the Mosaic trademark.

Not as many have heard of Chris Wilson, who co-authored the Windows version of Mosaic and went on to work at Spry (the first Mosaic licensee). When Wilson moved to Microsoft in summer of 1995, it wasn’t to join the IE team; he worked on web search and was part of the team building Blackbird, a graphical interface for creating content for MSN’s proprietary system, designed to compete with the dial-up AOL service.

silverberg Microsoft

Brad Silverberg was already thinking about the Internet when Windows 95 launched.

But the fact that someone who had already built a web browser was working at Microsoft didn’t go unnoticed and Wilson (who later became the leader of the W3C’s HTML working group and now works at Google) joined the IE team soon after the first version shipped in the Windows 95 Plus pack. In 2006 he joked that he’d spent ten years working on IE and would spend the next ten years making up for it.

The Internet Explorer team grew and grew, from half a dozen people working on the first version under Ben Slivka, to nearly a hundred people working on IE 3 under Brad Silverberg, who was fresh from the success of delivering Windows 95 and became head of the new Internet Platform and Tools division in February 1996. By the time IE 5 shipped in 1999, there were 1,000 people on the IE team, but it was Silverberg’s team of "superstars" (as he and the other managers of IE still refer to them), who worked day and night to build what they thought was the future of the company.

"The most incredible product team I ever worked with," Silverberg told us. "Such a small team, so many unbelievable superstars all working together as a team in some of the most inspired work of their career, under massive pressure and the highest possible stakes. A bit like the original Mac team, the IE team felt like the vanguard of Microsoft, the vanguard of the industry, fighting for its life. Culminating in IE3 which was a brilliant product and changed the rules of the game, both for the industry and for Microsoft -- showing Microsoft could be a leader and a good citizen. It was a reinvention of the Microsoft culture."

"Our work was more than work," remembers Hadi Partovi, the leader of IE product management until IE 5. "It was a passion and life mission.  We ate all our meals on the job; we worked very, very late nights. I would often go to sleep under my desk at 6 am only to wake up the next morning at 8 am ready for work. We had this sense that this multi-billion-dollar company was going to lose its future unless we could get ahead of the Internet wave, and that meant having the number one browser on the planet."

Getting to number one

In the early 90s, Internet Explorer was just one of over a dozen web browsers on Windows and Mac. Microsoft and Netscape competed to add new features for building more powerful websites in successive versions as well as competing over the best way to build a browser business. Was it was fair for Microsoft to include a browser free in Windows when Netscape was charging up to $12 for it (and even charging magazines to distribute evaluation copies on their cover discs, and then charging them again when their readers bought a license)? Did Microsoft buy its market share by pressuring PC OEMs and bundling IE with Windows or earn it by building a more powerful browser that didn’t crash as often?

Netscape CEO James Barskdale was always ready to mock Microsoft’s ability to create a browser and web server; Silverberg once thanked him for the "trash talk [that] helped us get motivated" and Paul Maritz, then group vice president for platforms (including the web, which meant he was boss to both Silverberg and the new head of Windows Jim Allchin) pointed out that “the thing that really motivates [Microsoft] is paranoia and competition."

But the war of words was matched by the battle of leapfrogging improvements -- and senior figures on both sides look back today and call their competition worthy opponents.

Released in August 1996, IE 3 wasn’t just a browser, or even just a standards-based browser (something that was a very un-Microsoft approach in those days). Years before the idea of web apps was widespread, IE 3 was designed to put the web everywhere.

"The vision for IE3 was to change the rules of the game and go all in on the internet," Silverberg told us. "The idea was that the internet should be part of every app, not just something confined to the walls of a browser window. We componentized IE3 with a very elegant architecture, so that anyone could build a browser, so that anyone could include whatever of the internet they wanted in their app. We won over AOL to build their internet client using the IE3 components.  I viewed IE3 the browser as just another app using the IE3 components.  Any app now could incorporate HTML for example into the app, say for displaying dialogs or for help."

Meanwhile, Netscape developed the LiveScript programming language which it launched as JavaScript (although with only a tenuous connection to the successful Java language). Microsoft came up with Dynamic HTML behaviours and won friends at ISPs by giving them tools to add their own branding to IE, but it also supported JavaScript -- and used it to build what was probably the very first Web app.

To be able to show your Exchange emails in Outlook Web Access in IE 5, Microsoft developed XHR, the basis of what we now know as AJAX; a technique many Web apps are still based on. IE was the first browser to have autocomplete, in the address bar and in forms, and you could argue that IE’s channels for following content were the first version of what became RSS. IE 3 had the first commercial implementation of CSS in August 1996; Netscape didn’t add that until Netscape Communicator 4 which shipped almost a year later.

By IE 4 a year later, Microsoft’s browser included many of the foundations for the Web as we know it now, and IE 5 in 1999 was widely hailed at the time as a better browser than Netscape; even Firefox VP Johnathan Nightingale agrees "whatever else, IE 5 was a solid product."

Partovi jokingly puts some of that down to the "latte challenge" he ran in the IE team: If anyone could find more bugs that crashed the browser than he did in a week, he’d bring them a latte every day for the next week. It was a fun way to motivate developers to focus on making the browser reliable enough to use for real work.

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