The end of Internet Explorer - how Microsoft lost the browser wars

Your default browser will reveal more about you than you care to admit and the ecosystem you spend most of your time in. Apple users will opt for Safari, which is designed for optimum performance on Macs and iPhones. Windows users are asked to embrace its Edge browser, and many will head straight to download Google Chrome instead. However, an increase in awareness around privacy and security is sending tech-savvy users to Firefox, Brave, or the Tor Browser. But how did we get here?

Back in the mid-90s, mainstream audiences went online for the first time and connected to the infamous sound of a dial-up modem. Every magazine contained AOL, Netscape Navigator, and Internet explorer CD ROMs. The browser wars quickly got underway. By 1997, things started to get nasty when Microsoft built a giant letter "e" to celebrate the release of Internet Explorer 4 and placed it on the lawn of Netscape headquarters. The Netscape team immediately responded by replacing it with a Mozilla dinosaur.

The killer blow for Netscape Navigator came when Microsoft set Internet Explorer (IE) as the default browser on its Windows operating system.

By 1999, IE had secured 99% of the market to officially win the browsing wars. But the war was far from over.

Netscape went open source and launched the not-for-profit Mozilla, which went on to release Firefox in 2002. By 2010, Internet Explorer's market share fell below 50%, but it was Google Chrome that would finally dethrone Microsoft's browser in 2012.

RIP Internet Explorer

Microsoft's obsession with the Bing search engine and not keeping up with the move to mobile web browsing has had a catastrophic impact on the tech giant. Windows Phones are already just a distant memory. Apple and Android devices now dominate the mobile landscape. The standard expectation of most users is a browser where their bookmarks, passwords, and history seamlessly sync across multiple platforms and devices.

Last year, it was revealed that the Microsoft 365 apps and services would no longer support IE11 in August 2021. In a more recent blog post, Sean Lyndersay announced that after 25 years, support for the much-maligned IE browser would officially end on June 15, 2022. Although there won't be too many tears shed at IE reaching the end of its lifespan, the transition to Microsoft Edge looks set for a rocky start.

A quick look at the stats reveals that Microsoft has a big mountain to climb in 2021 and beyond. Google Chrome currently has 64% of the global browser market, and Apple's Safari has 18%, while Microsoft's Edge has a paltry 3%. The search engine results are equally as concerning for Microsoft. Google currently handles 92.2% of web searches with more than 3.5 billion requests every day. By contrast, only 2.29% of web searches take place on Microsoft's Bing.

Can Microsoft regain its Edge?

Early teething problems were responsible for many calling Edge a buggy mess with annoying pop-ups, unsavable settings, and a worrying number of security vulnerabilities. Predictably, Microsoft also tries to push users to its services, such as the Bing search engine, which will frustrate rather than delight many users. But the Edge browser does have a few tricks that could see it win a performance battle over its rivals.

Sleeping tabs speeds up browsing performance by freezing the active pages in tabs you haven't recently visited to free up resources. It can also suspend elements of a website that you don't need when revisiting, such as advertisements. But will it be enough for Edge to become the cross-platform browser users want to install on their non-Windows devices?

Microsoft has attempted to replicate its tactics from the nineties by building the Edge browser around its new Windows operating system. But a Windows-based computer is no longer our primary device, and the Windows mobile phone has been confined to the history books. These are just a few reasons why Microsoft is struggling to convince users to switch over to the Edge browser on all their devices.

The browser wars in the digital age can no longer be won by locking people into one browser and search engine.

The battlefield is now the user experience, and most users already have a cross-platform browser across multiple devices. Installing a new app on every device that will promote a search engine they don't use is a big ask of users.

Microsoft may have won the battle in the nineties, but failing to adapt and evolve quickly enough to the mobile web meant it ended up losing the browsing war. Although Netscape Navigator is largely unknown to digital natives, its vision to democratize the internet is what lives on in the most successful browsers we use today.

As we look to the future of the internet, its security, privacy, and user experience will continue to dominate conversations around how we browse the web. Only time will tell if Google Chrome is also destined to be defeated in a future browser war, but this story is far from over.

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