Up, down, and out: 20 years of Internet Explorer

On IE's 20th anniversary, the story of the Web browser that had it all and lost its way

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When Windows 8 tablets came along, Microsoft started comparing IE11 not only to desktop browsers but to Safari on the iPad or Chrome on Android tablets. It emphasized features for more mobile browsing, such as showing multiple tabs and windows in the full-screen immersive browser, letting you use hover menus and drag and drop with touch, syncing tabs to other devices, prefetching pages while you're reading the first one, cutting out ads with the new reading view, and saving battery life by using the GPU, especially for video playback.

Internet Explorer's future gets cloudy

By October 2010, IE's market share had dipped below 50 percent for the first time, and over the next 18 months, Chrome and IE battled for first place, depending on whose stats you look at and how they count the pages Chrome fetches speculatively.

IE10 began to reverse the decline, though, and Roger Capriotti (who joined the IE team shortly before IE9 was announced) claimed that over those 12 months there was "a resurgence from the IE perspective; we picked up over five points of share worldwide while Chrome and Firefox lost that amount of market share. We hit a high point in November at 58.36 percent; in February we were still over 58 percent." He called that "the highest share we have seen in almost two years."

To show off IE, Capriotti started working with developers like the folks behind Cut The Loop and Contre Jour to build sites that used IE features. "Two years ago we were looking for partners; now I turn partners away. I have more people knocking on my door than I can handle."

The IE team also reached out to Web developers with tools, with teardowns of how they built those experience, with self-mocking campaigns like The Browser You Love to Hate -- aimed at "a certain set of folks were either upset with us or had forgotten about us," Capriotti says -- and a Tumblr about comebacks. "People started to say to us, 'maybe it's time to stop picking on yourself; you have a modern browser with these great experiences -- maybe it's time to start thumping your chest a bit.'"

Competitors started imitating IE, Capriotti says, especially in touch: "When Apple shipped iOS 7 on the iPad, they added some swipe gestures in the browser. Google has continued to build more touch integration into Chrome. They recognize that's what users want on these tablets." He says Google has also "taken a page from our playbook" in building experiences and telling developers how they work.

By IE11, IE had come a very long way -- but Microsoft had to keep proving that IE6 wouldn't happen again. It had caught up, but would IE fall behind again?

One problem was the perception that a new version of IE only shipped with a new version of Windows. In fact, IE10 arrived 18 months after IE9, IE11 came along after a year and the IE11 update six months later. With IE11, minus any fanfare, Microsoft quietly started updating the browser regularly -- slipping out new standards support along with the security fixes coming through Windows Update, like four major updates to WebGL in six months, and Microsoft introduced a public list of the technologies and standards it was considering or working on adding to the browser.

There were still omissions -- especially WebRTC, Google's proposal for real-time communications in the browser. It's easy to see Microsoft's reluctance to adopt WebRTC as protecting its income from Skype and Lync, but Microsoft has said all along it's about technical issues (views shared by some developers). The Skype team is working on a version that will run in the browser without plug-ins, and Microsoft has suggested its own proposal to the W3C, called ORTC. This is being developed as a standard that will be compatible with WebRTC; Google is also involved. The rivalry between the browser makers was quietly turning into cooperation, at least between the engineers working on the browsers -- but tensions remained.

As Mozilla's Nightingale points out, "part of the standards process is bringing your own proposals, and we're thrilled to see [Microsoft do that]. But part of the process is also building to the consensus even if it's not your proposal." On the other hand, he notes "any world where you've got Microsoft and Google trying to outdo each other in interoperability is a world I feel pretty good about."

Windows 10: IE passes the torch to Edge

The good news was those ongoing updates to IE meant more Web pages built for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari would work in IE, as long as Web developers stuck to cross-browser standards and didn't send IE code designed for an older version.

But for businesses that had built internal tools on IE6, moved as far as IE8, and stopped there, compatibility was a higher concern. For them, Microsoft added back several technologies from IE8 (writing the code from scratch, for better security, rather than bolting the old code back in place), along with Enterprise Mode as a way to choose which version of IE the browser should pretend to be.

But handling new standards remained a tension for IE. It was a hard balancing act to satisfy both leading-edge and conservative Web developers and to move at Web speed without losing stability.

Because it wanted to support all those thousands of enterprises that run their business on sites they've built in IE, Microsoft was prone to be more conservative about developing standards. In 2012, IE evangelist Rey Bango defined what Microsoft counted as a stable standard: "When there have been no recent additions or changes and no major changes or renaming is expected. Is it in at least two other browsers? Is it a candidate recommendation?"

All that backward compatibility was time-consuming to implement and complex for developers to use. Rather than keep all the old versions and write another one that was the new HTML5 engine, telling Web developers to keep using the HTML5 "edge mode" to always get the latest version of the Trident browser engine, the team decided to cut the Gordian knot in two.

In Windows 10, IE11 remains, but it has no new features and the only updates it will get are security fixes. What would have been the new HTLM5 edge mode became the EdgeHTML engine of the brand-new Edge browser. (The Edge browser app is completely new; the Edge engine is technically a fork of the Trident rendering engine with thousands of lines of code removed, killing off proprietary features and backward compatibility, and many new HTML5 standards added.)

Before Windows 10, Capriotti promised, "You can tell from the amount of development we put into IE10 and IE11 that we haven't taken our foot off the gas pedal. We're building a modern browser to help the Web. We're going to continue working to make sure IE is the fastest-performing browser out there, and make sure it's in line with other browsers from a standards perspective and it's interoperable."

That's still true, but it now applies to Edge rather than IE.

With Edge, everything was up for grabs. The browser team considered dropping Trident and adopting WebKit, Blink, or Gecko. It talked about whether there was a benefit to taking Trident open source. When the team asked if Microsoft would do a browser for iOS, Android, or OS X, the reply was that nothing was off the table. (The Cortana apps for iOS and Android that sync your searches among devices are a first step toward cross-platform browsing, but Windows is where Microsoft's browser focus remains today.)

The decision to keep its own rendering engine was pragmatism rather than persistence. "If we were to use WebKit," Sam George explained at Build 2014, "there is a very, very, very high switching cost, like Opera had as they switched to Blink. Our analysis is that the fastest way to keep up with the modern Web and keep delivering great interoperability is with our current technology, but to do it in a way where we can both preserve existing investments and move forward with the modern Web."

"It's a very real fact that we push each other," John Hazen added. "There are ways that Chrome, and things they're doing in Blink and the V8 engine are really pushing Microsoft, and ways that Microsoft is really pushing the industry -- like the hardware rendering we've done in the browser and with touch innovations. In the end we think it's best for the ecosystems to have a rich and competitive set of engines out there to spur innovation. We think it's a positive thing we're staying on Trident, we think it's a positive think Google is pushing ahead on Blink, we think it's a positive thing that there are still innovations that are being done on WebKit. A monoculture would end up degrading your overall experience." 

Edge gets updates as soon as features are ready. If businesses want a stable version of Windows 10, they can pick the Long Term Servicing Branch of Windows 10 Enterprise, which only has IE -- not the fast-moving Edge. Which features get added first is a trade-off involving factors like how widespread their use, how much demand Microsoft hears through the User Voice site, how complex they are to develop, how much traffic goes to sites that rely on them, what bugs need to be fixed to make them work, and how much other work the browser developers already have to do.

Although the Edge engine isn't open source, it includes code contributed by Dolby, Adobe, Borland (for Web remoting), and even Google -- parts of Edge's Web Audio code come from Chromium.

In many ways, Edge has come back to the promise of IE3 -- without giving up on Windows, despite the Edge team's willingness to at least consider the possibility of taking IE to other platforms. As Capriotti puts it, "There's the concept of the modern Web, and that isn't a concept that should be dictated by us or Mozilla or Google; it should come through the W3C."

It might have taken 20 years, but this time around, Microsoft isn't giving up on the browser.

This story, "Up, down, and out: 20 years of Internet Explorer" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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