Professor Mike Jackson, Birmingham City Business School

There have been reports in the computing press last week that Microsoft will cease developing Internet Explorer as part of Windows 10. Its eventual fate will be to be replaced with software which is currently known as Project Spartan and will be renamed when Microsoft’s marketing department decide how to brand it.

For many computer users, Internet Explorer was the first gateway to the Internet. The majority of us bought PCs with Windows installed and the browser that was pre-installed on Windows was Internet Explorer. Even if you preferred a different type of browser you would need to use Internet Explorer to download the software of your choice!

Actually the Internet came into being a long time before Internet Explorer.

Internet Explorer wasn’t even the first browser.

We tend to think of the Internet in terms of the World Wide Web. The Web began in the 1990s whereas the Internet in its current form dates back to the early 1980s.

When the Web was created most people had to access it through a text interface and its use was largely limited to users of computers which ran the Unix operating system. It was the introduction of the Mosaic browser which made the Web come alive and promoted its use.

Web usage really began to grow when Internet technology came to the PC and it was at this point that Internet Explorer became by default the most popular browser. In 2003 87% of Web access was undertaken by users of Internet Explorer.

The problem was that for Microsoft 87% was 13% short of where they wanted to be. They wanted to dominate the Web completely. So they began to introduce features into Internet Explorer which didn’t exist in other browsers. It became possible to produce Web pages which would only display properly in Internet Explorer. You could badge your pages with “Best viewed in Internet Explorer”.

Tying the Web to one piece of software was precisely what Tim Berners-Lee its creator was trying to avoid. The Web was invented because he saw a need to make data available on disparate hardware and software platforms at CERN. The last thing he wanted to do was force everyone to have to use the same software product. Consequently, the efforts made by Microsoft to tie everyone into Internet Explorer were backward steps rather than progress.

In the end Microsoft shot themselves in the foot by ignoring the emerging Web standards agreed by the World Wide Web standards group (W3C). They ignored them so much that you couldn’t rely on a web page which displayed properly in one version of Internet Explorer to display properly in the next version. The worst moment came when Internet Explorer 6 was labelled “the least secure software on the planet”. Consequently browser users migrated initially to Firefox and latterly to Chrome. In February 2015 only 8% of Web Access was made using Internet Explorer.

The upside of Microsoft’s failure to completely dominate the Web is that we are able to browse on devices that don’t support Microsoft Windows such as phones and tablets. If Microsoft had been successful in tying Web use to Internet Explorer then this might not have been the case.

Microsoft promises new browser features as part of Project Spartan. Let’s hope the lesson of the past has been learnt and that these will be used to realise the goal of the Web instead of trying to subvert it.

Find out more about Director of Academic Quality and Enhancement, Professor Mike Jackson who teaches at our Birmingham City Business School here

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Mike Jackson

Mike Jackson

Director of Academic Quality & Enhancement Birmingham City Business School