It is one of those questions I pondered recently as I saw via the media that according to NetMarket Share that Google Chrome was now the most popular browser in the world having surpassed Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. How did this happen? It seemed for a while that Microsoft would own the browser world, this despite the DOJ trial and its efforts to placate Jim Barksdale at Netscape. Microsoft had owned this for over a decade. As is so often the case in technology you can be out in front or get left behind. This is a subject near and dear to my heart and it is a story of failed vision and failed opportunities on the one hand and a successful vision and realized opportunities on the other.
In 1995 I was working at Microsoft and we as a company were gearing up for the launch of Windows 95. I was working in a inside pre-technical sales team, called the Developer Solutions Team (DST). We were always loading software in beta form from Microsoft and toying around and with this thing called the internet were now being let out of our cages to surf the web. Of course to do this we needed a browser and there were a few out on the market, but the best was Netscape Navigator. A few smart folks realized early on that these “newbies” were the enemy. Something about Marc Andreeson’s quote “we will reduce Windows to a buggy set of device drivers”. Anyone who dared criticize Windows in those days was asking for a beating. Next thing you know is Bill Gates does a speech in December 7, 1995 saying everything we do at Microsoft moving forward will be about the internet. Bil Gates had said often through the years he feared a smaller nimbler company coming up and displacing Microsoft. From that point on enemy number one was tiny Netscape Communications.
A little over a year later myself and three others in inside sales were moved to a pilot group focused on calling down on every ISP in North America. I got the Central Region and Canada. It turned out to be a really fun job as it was high impact and high visibility. The primary focus was getting ISP’s to use the Internet Explorer Administration kit (IEAK) versus using Netscape Navigator. The IEAK allowed ISP’s to brand IE, Netscape did not. The IEAK was free, while Netscape, still trying to figure out a business model, was around fifty bucks. In addition to the browser wars we started to hear and learn about Linux and Open Source. To host web sites the name Apache came up a lot. At this point in time the LAMP stack was still not there as did not hear much at the time abut MySQL and PHP. We were a team promoting Microsoft technology and capturing a lot of valuable intelligence. It was really the latter that brought to attention the new technology landscape that was starting to blossom. As a company it would take many years before we fully grasped Open Source.
As we turned to the end of the century Microsoft made some simple decisions. Jim Allchin head of Windows wrote a memo saying we should just bundle IE with Windows. At the time a smart decision. However as we marched on it would come back to haunt Microsoft. It was becoming increasingly clear that we were improving our browser with IE v3.0 and starting to take market share. We were making headway and Netscape was floundering. They decided to make a big bet on corporate email, after much fan fare it had a hard time getting off the ground and in my opinion was a bad choice. They were going head to head with Microsoft and IBM. One thing Netscape was doing was a lot of PR around how many hits to their homepage, millions. What if they had done search instead of corporate email? Just saying, things could have been much different.
The DOJ trial hit but Microsoft ability to take more market share did not stop. Within 5 years Microsoft’s Internet Explorer had become the dominant browser. Really no Safari, Opera, etc.. Then a interesting thing happened, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 6 on August 27, 2001. It was well received and continued Microsoft’s browser dominance. Then Microsoft just kind of stopped. The next release would not come out for over 5 years, in technology terms a life time. At the time Microsoft was operating on a outdated model, believing maintaining Windows market share was all important and in the short term the revenue numbers would support that, but in the long term it would harm innovation and access to new markets.
In the interim a non-profit open source project got underway and launched the Firefox web browser. It would develop a cult following and offer new things that Internet Explorer 6 did not, the big one being multi-tab browsing. By the time Internet Explorer 7 came the market was set to go significant change, primarily due to search and mobile. By October of 2006 Google had developed a business model around their search engine that was generating billions in revenues with huge upside. A little less than a year after the release of Internet Explorer 7, Apple would launch the iPhone with Google as its search partner. Mobile browsing would be done in Safari. The rest is history.
In September 2008 without a whole lot of fan fare, Google would release the initial version of its web browser, Chrome. I remember the day it came out a person next to my cubicle at Microsoft had loaded and we were playing around with it. What it had from a UI perspective was typical Google simplicity, not a lot of clutter. Simple Google search box and off you go. When I left Microsoft a year later it was time to try non-Microsoft things, so I bought a iPhone and used Chrome as my default browser. The UI was a bit more elegant than IE. I also loaded Firefox, but I think because it is an open source project it has a lot of techie bells and whistles I do not need. Over time Chrome has become my default web browser. The speed of the browser and simplicity of the UI were attractive and after a while it becomes a learned behavior. Start PC, click on browser.
Chrome did a lot of things correctly. Getting developers to write extensions. Using it to help maintain their share of search revenues. Always focusing on performance enhancements. They have now created Chromebooks, which have yet to seriously take off, but are gaining some traction. Google has lots of money so they can fund this PC displacement effort in the short run for revenue gains in the long tun, it is still a bet at this point. Google has been pushing the browser and web-based technologies. Google is the one browser that has a Chromecast option that allows me to stream content to my TV, provided I have a Chromecast device (I do) Since more and more content is video this is a handy feature.
A lot of the reasons Chrome has succeeded is the simple understanding of the evolving world and the important role a browser plays in it. While Microsoft was focused on the next version of Windows they were failing to understand that life was in the browser, not the OS. Google realized in order to have more understanding and influence with customers they were going to need something more than a search engine. The browser was the obvious choice as it has become our window to the world in which we live.
Microsoft has in recent months re-engaged in the browser war, but in my view it has backfired. The marketing folks believed the Internet Explorer name was old and tired and replaced it with “Edge” and it ships with Windows 10 and is only available in Windows 32 bit or 64 bit versions. There is no support for Android or iOS, which is a bit surprising given the change in views about competing OS’ at Microsoft. So much I feel of what goes wrong is not so much technology but marketing. I think Microsoft is so broad in its efforts that it struggles to maintain and sales and marketing momentum behind any particular product.
I was on a team that worked hard to build the identity and market share of Internet Explorer, but probably because it was free it was devalued at Microsoft. But I ask is anyone not on the internet? social media? following the stock market? Latest Football score? Streaming video via Netflix? In all cases you need a window to get there, and no it’s not Windows, it’s the web browser. In the digital economy it is very valuable real-estate. We have gotten so tied to it, from a business perspective we may forget its value. Through Chrome, Google will set its business agenda. If Microsoft is to realize its dreams in the cloud, Internet Explorer will be a very important component of that vision. I really enjoyed those early days of the web, it was innocent. Those days are gone replaced by extreme sophistication. No need for a telesales team of 4, but glad I had the opportunity.
Good Night and Good Luck,
Hans Henrik Hoffmann May 9, 2016