1998: A report from the International Data Corporation shows that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has passed Netscape Navigator in browser share for the first time.
“The results of [the survey] show a dramatic shift toward Microsoft Internet Explorer by midyear 1998,” IDC research manager Joan-Carol Brigham said in a press statement.
Even though the company’s browser suited the needs of most users, Microsoft wasn’t able to tip the scales because of marketing zeal, merit or pure quality. Rather, partnerships with hardware vendors, a lack of knowledge among new internet users, and the chaos of a young industry battling for elbow room on an even younger web ultimately gave Redmond the lead it would keep — and vastly expand — for the next decade.
As far as web browsers were concerned, it’s tough to say Microsoft was playing fair in 1998. The company’s Windows operating system was a sustained runaway hit — the vast majority of new desktop computers being sold ran Windows. And each of those Windows PCs came with Internet Explorer pre-installed.
On the other hand, downloading a competing browser like Navigator or Opera meant a long wait (remember the days of dial-up, when megabytes were counted in minutes instead of seconds?) and a couple of reboots. It also meant that the user had to know such a thing as alternate browsers even existed, which few did.
For most people, if you wanted to get on the internet, you just clicked on the big blue E on the desktop. It was right there, it worked, and that’s all that mattered.
But the browser issue sparked a federal antitrust suit against Microsoft in 1998. The trial included 76 days of testimony spread over eight months.
At its heart were allegations that Microsoft prevented users from uninstalling Internet Explorer without breaking Windows, made it difficult for users to install a different browser and have its icon appear on the desktop, and — in the most wicked claim — forced computer manufacturers to load IE onto every new Windows PC they shipped or lose the discounts and rebates they got on software licensing.
The long trial was filled with comic elements: falsified videotapes, exotic trickery by the lawyers, and petulant CEO Bill Gates taking the stand to argue over the meanings of words and claiming he couldn’t remember anything beyond his name, age and Social Security number.
Microsoft eventually settled with the U.S. Department of Justice three years later, and wasn’t penalized substantially — though it did end up paying hundreds of millions in damages to companies that sued independently on similar grounds. Meanwhile, the popularity of Internet Explorer continued to soar, reaching a market share of about 95 percent.
An equally strange story was also going on in the browser wars. America Online was still all the rage at the time of IDC’s report, with between 15 and 20 percent of all web users accessing the internet using the company’s connectivity service and its software.
Those people had even less choice about which browser to use than Windows PC owners — the IE browser was baked into AOL’s desktop software. So, if you were an AOL user, you were an IE user by default.
Then AOL purchased Netscape in November 1998, meaning Netscape’s new parent company was the same one responsible for a substantial chunk of IE’s automatic install base. AOL eventually ditched IE as its default browser and switched to its own in-house product.
By that time, though, Netscape’s browser team had lost focus. Its product had become a bloated, buggy mess watered down by features and buttons dictated by sales partnerships.
Earlier in the year, however, Netscape had released its browser code under an open source license. The browser that emerged from that project, named Mozilla, didn’t do very well, either. But a substantial rewrite of the Mozilla code in the early part of the next decade would result in Firefox, a new browser that was slimmer, faster, more stable and more capable of standing up to Internet Explorer.
As of August 2009, Firefox had gained a 23 percent market share, compared to IE’s 67 percent share, according to Net Applications.
Safe to say it’s done all right so far.
Image: Bill Gates gives a deposition for the Department of Justice in its antitrust litigation against Microsoft. (Via Groklaw)
- Awesome Infographic Charts the Browser Wars
- Sept. 28, 1865: England Gets Its First Woman Physician, the Hard Way
- Jan. 29, 1998: A Warning on Nicotine, Straight From the Horse’s Mouth
- Feb. 4, 1998: Gates Gets Creamed
- April 27, 1998: Koko Goes Ape in AOL Chat
- Sept. 7, 1998: If the Check Says ‘Google Inc.,’ We’re ‘Google Inc.’
- Sept. 11, 1998: Starr Report Showcases Net’s Speed
- Sept. 18, 1998: ICANN Takes Over Running Internet Domain-Name System
- Oct. 28, 1998: President Signs New Copyright Law
- Dec. 4, 1998: Midwife to the Int’l Space Station