Internet Explorer at 15: Kind of a punk, but still on top

This month, Internet Explorer turns 15 years old as the alpha dog among browsers, unfazed by occasional accusations of bullying and run-ins with the law.

This month, Internet Explorer turns 15 years old. Happy birthday, IE! Microsoft’s browser maintains its perch as commonly used in the world, despite some increased competition from the likes of Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Apple Safari, and is the go-to browser for the federal government. In fact, it’s the only one used by the General Services Administration.

Let's take a look at how IE got to this point, viewing this teenager as a person, rather than a piece of code.

IE derives from respectable parental origins, with most histories saying that its technological DNA came from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications combined with Spyglass Inc.'s technology. Spyglass Inc. was formed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a corporate spin-off to commercialize the NCSA's technologies. This period in IE's growth might be considered the conception and gestation stage.

In 1995, Microsoft licensed Spyglass' Mosaic code, leading to the formation of IE 1.0. Microsoft subsequently delivered IE 1.0 as "an add-on" to the Windows 95 operating system in July of that year, according to Microsoft's IE history (which omits parental details). The nascent IE was distributed on the "Microsoft Plus! For Windows 95" disk with Windows 95, which was made publicly available on August 24, 1995, according to Wikipedia's Windows 95 history. However, Wikipedia also points to IE 1.0's birthday as August 16, 1995.


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IE 1.0 was still younger than Netscape Mosaic, which was launched in October 1994 by Netscape Communications Corp. IE would struggle for many years, trailing Netscape's lead and trying to gain some respect.

In April 1996, IE 2.0 is born. The browser can be run on the Macintosh and Windows operating systems, plus it adds support for cookies and the Secure Sockets Layer cryptographic protocol. SSL was originally developed by Netscape. At this time, IE can crawl, but it lacked coordination with other applications.

In August 1996, IE 3.0 comes into the world. The browser starts talking with other applications, such as address book, mail and news. It can communicate with Windows Media Player, display graphics and play streaming audio files natively. Cascading Style Sheet support for Web pages becomes available to developers at this time.

In 1997, IE 4.0 arrives on the scene. By this time, IE is starting to become a querulous bully. Microsoft engaged in a dispute with one of IE's parents, Spyglass, over fees. Microsoft settled with Spyglass that year for $8 million, according to Wikipedia's IE history. Developers get so-called "dynamic" HTML (DHTML) support with IE 4.0, enabling more interactive Web pages. IE 4.0 at this time is running on Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows NT. Microsoft uses Windows as the human equivalent of nepotism, promoting IE through its Windows monopoly.

By late 1997, Microsoft is contesting a Justice Department complaint concerning anticompetitive behavior. Microsoft stats that IE is inseparable from Windows.

This period marks the beginning of the "browser wars," which saw Netscape Navigator lose its market-share lead over IE. In the mid-1990s, Netscape Navigator held more than 90 percent of the browser market. By the end of 2006, that market share had plummeted to less than 1 percent, according to Wikipedia's account. AOL completed its purchase of Netscape in 1998, but the company elected to stop updating the browser in March of that year.

In 1998, IE 5.0 is released, marking a further improvement of DHTML technology, according to Microsoft's history. On April 3, 2000, Microsoft is found by a federal court to have abused its Windows monopoly position in order to erode Netscape's browser market position.

In August 2001, Microsoft releases IE 6.0 with Windows XP. Microsoft added privacy and security capabilities, plus legacy support for IE 5 through "quirks mode." Developers start coding their Web sites to support how the code appears in IE 6, the predominant browser. By this time, Microsoft has eliminated the Netscape threat to its browser market share. Microsoft begins to release its new browsers less frequently. Firefox 1.0 is released by the Mozilla project in November 2004.

IE 7 is born in 2006 as a standalone application, five years after IE 6. The new IE 7 browser is distributed with Windows Vista, but is also available as a separate download for Windows XP Service Pack 2 and Windows Server 2003 SP1. Developers burdened with continuing to support IE 6 quirks see IE 6 as a browser that doesn't conform to standards.

By 2008, IE 8 is released with the promise of better support for Web standards, including CSS 2.1 compliance. An improved security filter to ward off phishing attempts is added. Microsoft cites studies it funded indicating that IE 8 was the most secure browser in terms of warding off socially engineered attacks. The company publishes its own tests results in 2009 concluding that IE 8 is the "fastest browser," but it later backs away from the top speed claim.

In January 2009, Internet Explorer gets in trouble with the law again. This time, it's with the European Commission, which issues a Statement of Objections indicating that Microsoft used its Windows monopoly in Europe to market Internet Explorer. Tempers fade in early 2010 as a browser ballot screen solution is released with European editions of Windows 7, allowing other browsers a better chance of being selected.

On September 15, 2010, Microsoft expects to bring to term a new addition to its browser family -- namely, Internet Explorer 9. With IE 9, which is currently available as "platform preview 4" for Windows 7 and Windows Vista, Microsoft has made it known that it intends to stay on the cutting edge of standards, supporting the HTML 5 and CSS 3 evolving standards.

Microsoft now hopes that IE 6 will die as it ushers in a new era with IE 9. However, IE 6, with all of its insecurities and quirks, is now tied to the lifecycle of the Windows XP operating system per Microsoft's legal arguments. That means that Microsoft still has to support IE 6 through April 2014. Meanwhile, many organizations have built their Web applications based on IE 6 and have problems upgrading those apps to run on the next browser version. In February 2010, Google dropped support for IE 6 after a hacking incident traced to China resulted in data being stolen from Google's corporate headquarters.

Microsoft will face the somewhat embarrassing situation of releasing IE 9 before Windows 8, which supposedly is Microsoft's next operating system under development. The release will bust the myth that Internet Explorer is tied to the operating system, argues long-time Microsoft observer Mary-Jo Foley.

Although IE is still a teenager in human years, it's proven itself to be pervasive and dominant, holding a market share in July of 60.7 percent, according to Net Applications. It's also shown itself to be somewhat of a scofflaw and bully, although people do tend to get behind bullies. Now, with IE 9 coming next month, it may prove greater maturity. Will IE 9 respect common standards -- and common decency -- as well as the time of Web developers? That prospect remains to be seen.

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