Explorer is gone, but lock-in lives on
It’s official: Internet Explorer is dead. On 15 June, Microsoft cut off support for the browser that was the gateway to the Internet for an entire generation.
In practical terms this doesn’t really matter: there are plenty of other browsers around, including Microsoft’s own Edge, Google’s Chrome, Apple’s Safari and a host of others such as Firefox and Brave. The legacy of Explorer and what it tells us about business practices in the tech sector are interesting, though.
Neither the first browser, nor even the first popular one – those would be WorldWideWeb and Netscape, respectively – it is fair to say that Explorer brought the Web to the masses.
Surprisingly, Explorer had an inauspicious start in life. Essentially a fork of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications’ Mosaic browser that itself pre-dated and inspired Netscape, it wasn’t initially bundled with Windows 95, instead requiring users to pay for a copy of the Microsoft Plus add-on. That would soon change, however, and with it the computing, business and political landscape.
Microsoft started to include Internet Explorer with Windows and, over time, began to integrate it with the operating system itself. This had a number of effects: firstly, it cut off the NCSA’s royalty stream, which was based on a percentage of sales. Secondly, it kicked-off the browser wars: by 1998 Explorer had 48% of the market, leaving Netscape with 41.5%, and that would continue to dwindle.
Finally, and most importantly, it cemented the popular idea that Microsoft was effectively a monopolist. Legal challenges would soon follow and Microsoft would end up in the judicial and even political spotlight, with the browser offered among the evidence that the company had an outsized influence. This came to a head in 2000 when US judge Thomas P. Jackson ruled that it should be split into two companies as punishment for monopolistic business practices.
Of course, in the end this didn’t happen, but Explorer was crucial because Microsoft was accused of trying to use it to define new standards and, so, lock users not only into its browser, but the wider Windows ecosystem.
Today, Microsoft is still a successful and massively profitable business, but it is no longer seen as a threat to society at large.
Microsoft has enjoyed enormous success by concentrating on its core strengths in enterprise and moving wholeheartedly to the cloud and software-as-a-service (SaaS) and, of course, it is an enormous player in other sectors including gaming. However, having fumbled both mobile and search it is not Microsoft but other companies, notably Alphabet (Google) and Meta (Facebook), that are now being scrutinised for their outsized influence, not to mention Apple’s tight control of its app store.
One lesson we can learn from this is that times change: the operating system is almost an irrelevance today, with more and more software targeting and being deployed on the Internet rather than the desktop or traditional server.
Another one, however, might be that we need to be wary of vendor lock-in – and in our era of SaaS and app stores, it is no less a threat today.