Internet Explorer cheated its way to the top, and I won’t miss it

I started teaching myself HTML in earnest after I attended a crowded presentation at the Modern Language Association in the early 90s. Midway through his demonstration of what a mouse was, the speaker asked a crowd of hundreds who had used a graphical web browser (everyone raised their hands), and who had used the Internet in their teaching and research (everyone raised their hands), and who had coded a web page (I saw just three hands… one of which was mine).

The most important thing I took away from that presentation was that I could have been standing up there giving it.

I don’t mean to denigrate the speaker. My point is that I, a terrified grad student dwarfed by tenured giants, realized that I had a skill that others thought was valuable.

I had already gotten my reading list together and started working in a dissertation on American literature, and I stayed that course, and did not pivot into a “Humanities Computing” track, but my self-taught technical skills were enough to get me valuable work-study positions and a decent job creating an maintaining web sites.

I must have started out using Mosaic, but I remember making the switch to Netscape to teach myself the basics of HTML coding, and I remember being eager to learn the emerging WWW standers, but being frustrated that Internet Explorer would not always reliably implement those standards. So I often had to create two different versions of a web page, one for all the web browsers that followed the standards, and one for Internet Explorer.

AOL relentlessly marketed itself to middle American normies who didn’t know that AOL and IE both sucked.

Then-AOL senior vice-president David Colburn said: “Microsoft gave it a mob-like offer it could not refuse: a prime piece of real estate on the Windows desktop in return for licensing Microsoft’s Internet Explorer instead of Netscape Navigator.”

This two-pronged strategy was remarkably effective. Netscape, which in 1996 had roughly 90% market share, tumbled to 42% by early 1999, while Internet Explorer zoomed from virtually nothing to over 55%.

At the turn of the century IE sat at over 75%, and the free-falling Netscape was at 23%. By 2001, Netscape’s share was in single digits, while IE swallowed 90% of the browser market.

Internet Explorer didn’t get there by being better. It devoured the market by taking hold of key levers and adjusting them in its favor.

Microsoft did work to improve its middling browser but, in a karma-filled twist, its Internet Explorer reclamation projects were quickly overshadowed by the arrival of an out-of-left-field web browser: Google Chrome.