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Internet Explorer was once synonymous with the Internet, but today it’s gone for good

Aurich Lawson | Getty Images

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has died many deaths over the years, but today is the one that counts. The final version of the browser, Internet Explorer 11, will no longer receive support or security updates starting today, and it will gradually be removed from Windows 10 PCs via a Windows Update at some point in the future. It was never installed on Windows 11 PCs at all.

Microsoft says that people who open Internet Explorer “over the next few months” will “progressively” be redirected toward Microsoft Edge instead, which will offer to import all bookmarks and saved passwords to ease the transition. For users and businesses who need Internet Explorer to access individual websites, Microsoft will continue to support IE mode in Microsoft Edge until “at least 2029.” IE mode combines the user interface of Edge with IE11’s old Trident rendering engine, allowing older websites that don’t render correctly in newer browsers to continue to work.

That’s the end of the line for Internet Explorer, a browser that annihilated all competitors in the late-’90s browser wars only to be decisively wiped out in the early-2010s browser wars. For those who weren’t there, we’ve put together a brief history of the life and times of Internet Explorer. IE’s heyday is a distant memory, but the entire story is worth knowing. Google Chrome is on top of the world today, but that didn’t happen overnight, and the browser wars have been nothing if not cyclical.

From Mosaic clone to world-devourer

Enlarge / Internet Explorer’s About screen advertised its Mosaic roots all the way through version 6.
Andrew Cunningham

Internet Explorer’s story begins with NCSA Mosaic, one of the earliest graphical web browsers. It was preceded by a handful of projects—Tim Berners-Lee’s Nexus project is generally acknowledged as the first browser, and Cello preceded Mosaic on Windows PCs—but Mosaic popularized browsers as we know them, with a recognizably modern user interface and support for inline images. The ability to combine images and text on the same page may sound like the absolute bare minimum for a browser now, but in the early ’90s, it was revolutionary.

Mosaic inspired competitors. Some, like Netscape Navigator, were their own distinct projects, though many of the people who created Netscape had worked on Mosaic first. Others were direct offshoots of Mosaic and used its trademarks and source code. One of these offshoots was Internet Explorer.

Microsoft licensed a version of Mosaic from Spyglass, Inc., which itself had licensed the original version of Mosaic with the intent of unifying its disparate codebases and making the browser support the same features on all supported platforms. Microsoft was just one of the companies that licensed the Spyglass version of Mosaic; the companies hoped to jump into the browser market quickly by putting their name on an existing browser rather than building one from scratch.

The first few versions of IE weren’t especially noteworthy, and they mainly played catch-up with Netscape while adding support for more platforms (by the time version 3.0 rolled around in mid-1996, IE ran on Windows 95, NT, and 3.1, as well as 68K and PowerPC Macs). But Windows 95 was taking over the computing world at the time, and Microsoft used its increasing dominance of the PC world to push its other products, IE first among them.

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Microsoft’s bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows—and, by the time Windows 98 and Internet Explorer 4 rolled around, the browser’s ever-deeper integration into the rest of the operating system—was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, IE’s market share shot upward dramatically in 1996 and 1997, taking a huge bite out of Netscape’s share simply by virtue of being available on most Windows 95-era PCs. On the other, it drew intense legal scrutiny, starting with an $8 million settlement with Spyglass (Microsoft had agreed to pay Spyglass royalties based on IE sales and had then bundled it for free with Windows, technically generating zero revenue) and continuing with a landmark antitrust case brought by the US government.

If you didn’t live through the era, it’s hard to imagine the extent to which Windows was computing in the late ’90s. The Mac existed and was still beloved by the proverbial “crazy ones,” but it was at its nadir in terms of market reach and cultural relevance. Early Windows competitors like OS/2 and BeOS had been mostly vanquished. We were years from Linux distributions that even pretended at user-friendliness. Palm Pilots, Apple Newtons, and Pocket PCs were weirdo niche gadgets used by Business Dads, the guys who learn valuable lessons about putting their family ahead of their work in ’90s movies.

Internet Explorer 6 was IE’s peak—and the architect of its decline

By the time Internet Explorer 6 was released in early 2001, Microsoft controlled well north of 90 percent of the entire browser market, a percentage that even Google Chrome can’t match today. Competitors like Opera and Netscape existed, but their market share was microscopic.

And then Internet Explorer just kind of… stopped. After iterating relentlessly from 1995 to 2001, Internet Explorer 6 began to tread water. The best feature to come to IE in the early 2000s was probably Google Toolbar.

Maybe this stagnation was a symptom of Microsoft’s behind-the-scenes development struggles during the Longhorn era or a side effect of the company’s renewed attention to security during Windows XP’s oft-extended life cycle. Maybe Microsoft became a victim of its own success—websites in this era were developed specifically for Internet Explorer 6 in ways that could break when viewed in other, more standards-compliant browsers, creating an aversion to change and technical debt that Microsoft is still paying off. Or maybe it was just good-old-fashioned lack of competition; Microsoft had wiped out all serious alternatives and decided to pull up its laurels and take a rest.

Whatever the reason, after a few years of inactivity, other companies saw an opportunity and pressed their advantage. The most successful browser in the short term was Mozilla Firefox, which rose from the ashes of the vanquished Netscape browser in late 2004 (after a couple of years of beta releases). Firefox popularized now-common features like tabbed browsing, an integrated search bar, and third-party extensions and themes, minor but notable additions that felt all the more revelatory after years of an unchanging Internet Explorer. Firefox never overtook Internet Explorer, but it had attained double-digit market share by late 2006, a feat no other browser had managed since the demise of Netscape.

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But the knife in Internet Explorer’s heart was thrown by Apple. Microsoft had maintained Internet Explorer for Mac as part of a five-year agreement with Apple—Microsoft invested $150 million in Apple and committed to supporting Office for Mac, while Apple made Internet Explorer for Mac the platform’s default browser.

Enlarge / Mac OS X 10.3, codenamed Panther, was the first to ship with Safari as the default browser instead of Internet Explorer.

Once those five years were up, Apple quickly developed and released its own browser, called Safari. It became the platform’s default browser in 2003 (and Microsoft ceased all development on IE for Mac shortly afterward, a move that Apple’s then-tiny market share probably seemed to justify). More importantly, Safari was built on top of a browser engine called WebKit, which Apple open-sourced in 2005.

And it was WebKit that Google turned to when it began developing its own browser. Firefox and Safari had both put a serious dent in Internet Explorer, calling renewed attention to web standards and browser interoperability in the process. But it was Chrome that broke Internet Explorer’s back.

Chrome combined fast rendering with an innovative new user interface that had minimal buttons and a unified bar for typing URLs and search queries, which immediately made it stand out from the crowd. But perhaps more importantly, it was also a browser made by the biggest, most ubiquitous search engine in the world—a name that was synonymous with search in the way that Xerox was synonymous with making copies and Kleenex was synonymous with booger-wiping.

Chrome was released in 2008 at the height of Google’s “don’t be evil” era. The company was huge, and it was well-liked by both consumers and the tech press, so Chrome was able to pry off the pickle jar lid that Firefox and Safari had spent years loosening. By the end of 2011, Chrome had overtaken Firefox. By the end of 2012, it overtook Internet Explorer as the most-used desktop browser, a spot it has retained ever since.

IE struggles, and Edge steps in

Microsoft didn’t stand still in response to renewed competition, but it also didn’t respond quickly. Internet Explorer 7 wasn’t released until 2006, five years after IE6’s initial release and well behind the likes of Firefox and Safari. IE8 followed in 2009, followed by IE9 in 2011, IE10 in 2012, and IE11 in 2013. None of them could arrest or reverse the browser’s decline. WebKit (in the form of Safari and the pre-Chrome web browser included on Android devices) also dominated the burgeoning smartphone and tablet markets, where iOS and Android quickly established dominant positions that they still hold today.

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Internet Explorer was in decline on the desktop, and it was effectively locked out of “post-PC” devices that Microsoft didn’t control. And Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform never caught on, meaning that the mobile version of Internet Explorer also failed to catch on.

Enlarge / Microsoft Edge as it existed in 2015, rendering Ars Technica as it existed in 2015.

Microsoft renewed its efforts to regain relevance with Edge, which launched with Windows 10 in 2015. A browser that kept the blue E icon but jettisoned everything else about Internet Explorer, Edge included a new touchscreen interface and a new browser engine called EdgeHTML. But changing the name didn’t fix Microsoft’s fundamental problem: Its browser’s features lagged behind the competition and lacked compatibility with the by-then well-established universe of third-party browser extensions. Edge also suffered because of the somewhat bewildering decision to allow it only on Windows 10 systems, skipping Windows 7 and 8 (and saying nothing of other platforms like macOS or Linux).

The first version of Edge’s usage share never exceeded 5 percent, according to StatCounter data, and that’s just measuring desktop usage without accounting for phone or tablet browsers. It did so poorly that it was outlived by, among many other browsers, Internet Explorer.

In late 2018, Microsoft admitted defeat—kind of. It announced that an all-new version of Edge based on Google’s Chromium codebase was coming. It would be, in other words, a Microsoft-branded wrapper for a browser that was mostly Google’s, faintly echoing the company’s decision to license Mosaic rather than build its own browser from the ground up more than two decades earlier.

But adopting Chromium came with advantages, including wide compatibility with websites, a competitive feature set, and the ability to take advantage of most of Chrome’s huge library of extensions. Since then, Microsoft has layered a number of its own unique features on top of Chromium and its Blink engine (forked from WebKit in 2013), even if some of them are annoying. And its contributions to the Chromium project help to fix bugs and solve problems for Edge and Chrome users alike.

And in conceding to Google, Microsoft has finally managed to find a foothold in the modern browser war. Edge has recently managed to edge out Firefox for a distant third place in market share, according to Atlas VPN data. Statcounter, meanwhile, shows Edge barely beating out Safari for second place in desktop browser usage, at just over 10%.

It’s not a lot, and at least some of that growth has come at the expense of Firefox, not the still-dominant Chrome. But the new Edge is as successful as a Microsoft browser has been in years, and history repeats itself. It’s far from the most likely outcome, but today’s scrappy contender could always become the thing we’re all using to explore tomorrow’s Internet.