This week, some Microsoft apps, like Outlook, started their slow march to no longer work in Internet Explorer. Next year, the browser itself won’t be supported anymore, as Microsoft moves users to its Edge browser instead.
It’s the end of an era for Internet Explorer, which was created back in the ’90s during the so-called browser wars and was the focus of the big antitrust case against Microsoft.
Margaret O’Mara is a professor of history at the University of Washington. She said the first major browser was Netscape Navigator, co-developed by Marc Andreessen, who saw browsers as the future of everyday computing. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Margaret O’Mara: Andreessen famously says, “We’re going to reduce Windows to a poorly debugged set of device drivers.” And I think that first shows the fierce competition that underlay the browser wars. But also, why are browsers important? Once you have a user using your browser, then they are often using your search engine, they are using your other software platforms and products, especially as things like email and other software starts getting delivered through the browser. Why does Apple? Why does Google? Why do all these companies get into browsers? They are a way to get your dominance on the desktop itself.
Meghan McCarty Carino: So when did Microsoft come into the browser game with Internet Explorer?
O’Mara: Well, Microsoft is coming, in internet time, a little late. But as soon as it starts focusing on it and devoting its considerable resources, talent and money to building a competitor browser, it very quickly becomes a major player. So Microsoft can do what Netscape and all other companies cannot: It can bundle its browser into Windows. That antitrust suit, in fact, was the result of Netscape and its investors and other Silicon Valley allies furiously lobbying against Microsoft for this anti-competitive behavior — for this bundling.
McCarty Carino: We did a little callout asking listeners to share their experiences about Internet Explorer, and if anyone still uses it. And we heard from a number of people that they still have to use it for certain business applications that only run still in Internet Explorer. Was its legacy really built in the business world?
O’Mara: Browsers, initially, in the early days of the web, were designed to have this universality, right? And what happens as the marketplace becomes more crowded, and the different browser makers find new ways to jazz up their product, they have features that make them not as universal. So that is a function of this marketplace emerging — from having something that initially was an idea of a noncommercial navigational tool for the newly commercial internet. And now, it’s actually a piece of business software, essentially.
McCarty Carino: What do you think is next for browsers? Are they gonna stick around?
O’Mara: The browser as we think of it, you know, this portal that pops up on your screen and the way that you get online and move around the internet, I don’t think they’re going to go away. But the online world is changing, the devices we use, the software we use, the platforms we use, and [we’re] always going to need a road map to this enormous sea of online information. But the browser itself, the way we do that, may take a lot of different forms.
McCarty Carino: When you say that browsers could take new and different forms, can you give us an example of what you’re thinking about?
O’Mara: Well, I think about wearables, for example, where you have watches and glasses. And there have been some famous attempts thus far. Google Glass is one example. But, you know, it’s clear that large tech companies are working with wearables. When we think about a browser, we think about typing on something either with our thumbs on our smartphone screen or on a keyboard. Clearly, there are going to be other ways to indicate with human gesture, or sound, or something that will take us where we want to go online.
Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino
Browsers may not be the hot new product they were back in the early days of the internet, but that’s because the battle for how we navigate the internet has shifted to mobile. Of course, the walled gardens of Apple and Google have steered most users into Safari or Chrome, respectively. But concerns about privacy and tracking could be the differentiator bringing more competition into the space.
As the Verge reported in 2020, all sorts of different browsers are coming up with their own features to crack down on privacy-invading tracking. As Verge writer Dieter Bohn evocatively put it back then, “The next browser war is here and it’s a goat rodeo.”
All the biggies have introduced anti-tracking features, but The New York Times’ consumer technology writer Brian X. Chen writes that smaller browsers like those from Brave and DuckDuckGo offer the highest level of privacy protection — though they do cause some sites to look a bit wonky, since frankly, the internet is kinda optimized for ads at this point.
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