1995: The year the future began
Internet Explorer, the buggy, disliked, yet once-dominant Web browser, this weekend reaches the 20th anniversary of its initial release.
It’s an important occasion in Internet history that probably will go little observed.
Version 1.0 of Internet Explorer was a puny product, an underwhelming clone of the Mosaic browser that Microsoft Corporation leased in a belated rush to enter the browser market. Just a week before Explorer’s release, Netscape Communications went public with an initial offering of its shares — a moment that stunned Wall Street and signaled the emergence of the World Wide Web into mainstream consciousness.
As I note in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, Netscape represented “the swagger and flamboyance of the early Web and its exuberant promise of wealth swiftly made.” Microsoft, on the other hand, was slow to recognize the centrality of the Web in the digital age.
Netscape was a Silicon Valley startup that made the Navigator graphical Web browser. By summer 1995, Netscape’s browser had captured about 70 percent of the market.
Microsoft’s release of Explorer” was the first volley in what became the “browser war” of 1995-98, a confrontation between the giant Microsoft and the upstart Netscape. Microsoft ultimately won the “browser war” — after turning to what a federal judge later determined to have been illegal restraints of trade in bundling Explorer, which was commonly known as “IE,” with its Windows 95 and Windows 98 operating systems.
In a retrospective posted in 2010 about Explorer’s introduction , the Seattle Post-Intelligencer pointed out that IE’s history “traces Microsoft’s own history to a T. With IE, Microsoft used another company’s technology to develop a product that squashed a market leader, that was distributed in a way that got Microsoft into antitrust trouble, that achieved market dominance ….”
Of course, little of that was anticipated on August 16, 1995, release date of Explorer 1.0.
Eight days later, amid much hoopla and contrived ceremony, Microsoft released Windows 95. Explorer 1.0 was sold as a $49 add-on to the operating system.
A few months after that, Microsoft released Explorer 2.0, which was a decided upgrade from 1.0. And in August 1996, Microsoft made available Explorer 3.0, the version that introduced the distinctive blue “E” logo.
Microsoft’s Explorer steadily gained market share, eclipsing Netscape Navigator in 1999. By then, Netscape had been acquired by AOL.com, a move that effectively signaled the end to the “browser war.”
For several years thereafter, Explorer was the Web’s dominant browser — and it was often disdained for its security flaws and compatibility issues. In 2006, PC World ranked Explorer 6, which came out in 2001, among the worst tech products, ever. The magazine said Explorer “might be the least secure software on the planet.”
Given such unflattering characterizations, and given the outcome of the ugly struggle with Netscape, Internet Explorer was never a particularly likable product. As Lance Ulanoff wrote at Mashable.com a few months ago:
“Its somewhat brutish climb to market dominance made Internet Explorer feel like an uninvited guest who plops himself down in your favorite seat, strips off his socks then asks you to order takeout.”
In March, Microsoft announced it would gradually phase out IE, supplanting it with a new browser, called Edge, which has had some bugs of its own. Internet Explorer is still around, but is treated as a legacy browser.
The mourning that accompanied Microsoft’s announcement about IE was scant.
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