Happy 15th birthday Internet Explorer. Microsoft’s venerable IE browser turned 15-years-old this past Monday, but has seen its dominant market share start to slip.
It’s been a contentious decade and a half for IE, but once again, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) is hoping for big things from IE9, the long-awaited next release of the Internet Explorer browser.
“If it [IE9] performs well and installs quickly, it might help reverse the slide it’s taken in market share,” Matt Rosoff, research vice president for consumer products and corporate affairs at research firm Directions on Microsoft, told InternetNews.com.
In mid-September, Microsoft plans to roll out the first beta test copiesof IE9. The company has not yet given a ship date for the final IE9 release.
IE’s greatest hits
Microsoft faced down many competitors on the road to browser success. Here’s a series of quick snapshots of how it got to where it is and IE’s future prospects:
The first version of IE (IE1) shipped in 1995, as an add-in to Windows 95 as part of the Windows 95 Internet Jumpstart Kit, as noted in the history of IEsection on Microsoft’s website.
It was based on Mosaic, arguably the first graphical Web browser, which was created by a team at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that included Marc Andreessen, who would later become a founder of Netscape.
Finally, IE3 came out in the summer of 1996, featuring Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), support for ActiveX controls, and Java applets. It was also the first version of IE to technically be bundled with Windows 95. After that, Netscape, which had been dominant to that point, began to slip in market share. It would also prove to be a thorn in Microsoft’s side going forward, however.
Microsoft shipped IE4, which added the Active Desktop enabling users to use their own pictures or websites as wallpaper, along with Windows 98 in 1997. It also added support for Dynamic HTML and included Windows Media Player.
A bit later, IE5 was bundled with Windows 98 Second Edition (SE) in 1998. Among the additions was support for XML. Version 5.5 was included with Windows Millennium (ME).
IE6 shipped with Windows XP in late 2001, which due to the OS’s popularity, helped establish version 6 as a powerhouse.
By now, though, IE6 had become problematic for Microsoft. So many users adopted XP along with IE6 that many large companies were stuck maintaining IE6 inside their enterprises, which hamstrung Microsoft’s efforts at trying to get them to update to the most recent version IE8.
Additionally, Microsoft’s pre-emptive bundling of IE eventually brought down heat from the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) for anti-competitive behavior, fueled by repeated complaints from Netscape’s attorneys and executives.
That ultimately led to an antitrust verdict against Microsoft in late 1999, which was later upheld on appeal in 2000. However, the appeals court ruled against splitting up the company, and Microsoft and the DoJ and interested states came to a settlement that is still in effect. Despite losing the case, Microsoft emerged relatively unscathed as its biggest fear, that it would be forced to unbundle IE from Windows, didn’t happen.
However, by the end of 2004, Firefox was emerging as IE’s first real competition for the browser since Netscape was overwhelmed years earlier.
The competition seemed to get Microsoft’s attention and the company refocused its efforts on updating IE for the first time in years. It shipped IE7 in late 2006, a response that added support for a popular Firefox feature (tabbed browsing) and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds in the browser.
By then, however, Microsoft’s dominance has begun to wane under an onslaught of competitors, although only a couple have emerged as serious threats — including Firefox 3.6 which shipped in early 2010. Other potential contenders include Apple Safari and Google Chrome, while Opera Mini has proven popular on mobile devices.
In March 2009, Microsoft released IE8, which emphasized the company’s intent to focus more on meeting Web standards rather than going its own way — something it has been criticized for repeatedly over the years.
By May 2010, IE had fallen to its lowest market share in years with 59.75 percent of all browsers, according to Web analytics firm Net Applications.
Microsoft hailed June and July of this year as signs of a turnaround for IE as its its share of the browser market leveled off. Still, it ended July 2010 with 60.74 percent share — a huge drop from when IE ran on something north of 90 percent of all Windows PCs just a few years ago.
It hasn’t helped that Microsoft had to endure a battle with the European Commission’scompetition directorate that ultimately led to the company offering Windows in Europe with a menu that lets users pick which competing browsers they’d like as their default — including IE, of course, but also several others.
Banking on IE9?
Now, Microsoft is preparing to begin beta testing IE9, which it hopes will boost the browser’s fortunes to growing, rather than level or shrinking, adoption.
With IE9, Microsoft is hitting some familiar notes — increased standards compliance (including support for HTML5 and media rich Web applications), as well as faster performance.
As more and more users migrate to accessing the Web via mobile devices like the iPhone, however, even making IE more compliant and faster may not help it stave off the decline it’s experienced in recent years. If IE merely holds its own though, its still in an enviable position.
“There are several hundred million PCs sold every year and they all come with IE … but the browser isn’t their main product,” said analyst Rosoff. “It’s not the end of the world if their browser share doesn’t turn around. It’s not critical from a sales perspective.”
Stuart J. Johnston is a contributing writer at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals. Follow him on Twitter @stuartj1000.