Something for the Weekend, Sir? Rumours reaching Dabbsy Towers that Microsoft might be finally letting Internet Explorer die gave me absolutely no joy or cause for celebration.
It has been said in places that, having been the world’s favourite web browser straddling the Millennium years, Internet Explorer defined the emerging Internet age.
I beg to differ: the Internet emerged despite Internet Explorer, in the same way that I passed my French O-Level despite the worst efforts of my school’s hopelessly inept French teacher. Even the visiting student assistant would ask us kids what he was saying.
What a pile of junk Internet Explorer has been all this time. Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say. Yah boo sucks.
But wait… surely there was a reason that IE became so popular. It’s not like it was the only way to browse the World Wide Web, even in the early days, before Microsoft chose to overload it with incompatible, proprietary crap that no-one asked for, no-one used and everyone hated.
Not being particularly knowledgeable about networks at the beginning of the 1990s, beyond the confines of daisy-chaining AppleTalk cables, my own first experience of the Internet was through the raw and excitingly silent command-line portal to the Usenet on CIX. I had absolutely no idea what was going on or what to do, so invariably I’d withdraw after a minute of head-scratching and return to CIX’s more familiar BBS-style forums.
My first exposure to the World Wide Web phenomenon, however, was an absolute turkey of a web browser implementation: Spry Mosaic, crudely rebranded and very clumsily installed by CompuServe. For all the potential of my employer’s super duper T1 line, these were the days when everyone connected their computers via Netware or Token Ring or some such crazy proprietary shit. Internet standards were not yet standards.
Young men, young women, may you never have to suffer the ten levels of buggeration required to get on the web in the 1990s. Just connecting to the Internet, let alone browsing any of it, was a gargantuan task that involved configuring mysterious stuff on your PC such as “TCP/IP” and a particularly annoying turd known as “winsock” whose sole purpose, as far as I can remember, was to prevent anyone from getting onto the web under any circumstances.
With the help of cleverer colleagues, I ditched Mosaic and installed Netscape Navigator. Forget the rest, this was the web browser that kickstarted the web revolution. While much cleverer colleagues soon had their heads buried in the Mozilla spin-off project, Netscape was everything that anyone really needed for web browsing. Sure, the web still looked like grey junk, but at least the browser was lightweight and nifty, and I was easily transfixed by the naff animated “N” logo.
I authored my first HTML pages, for Ziff-Davis’s Computer Life magazine, in 1995 I think, using Notepad, Netscape and Paint Shop Pro. Without a doubt, Netscape was worth every penny.
Oh yes, you forgot about that, didn’t you? In those heady days of shareware and chargeable dial-up, you had to pay for your web browsers with money. At least, that was the case until Microsoft turned up massively late to the web party, not having been invited in the first place. Even so, Microsoft simply barged its way onto the dance floor, unzipped its trousers and waved its huge, hairy knob at everyone. “Ooh look at me, I’m so rich, I can give it away for free!”
Early releases of IE were not terribly good but version 3.0 was a winner AND it was free. Along with the rest of the world, I was not about to turn down free software if it was as good as the paid-for stuff. For reasons known only to itself, Netscape management decided to counter the threat from IE by making its own product demonstrably worse.
Netscape grew fatter, slower and buggier. It had some nice ideas with the rebranding to Netscape Communicator and Gold – incorporating the kind of integrated email and meeting calendar functions that most of us take for granted today – but good intentions are no help if the software crashes regularly throughout the day. Netscape had become bloatware.
By the way, this is what tends to happen when you put earnest academics in charge of a commercial operation. The same happened at Corel. History proves time and time again that the perfect boss for a successful IT business is not someone with smarts and goodwill but a sociopathic college drop-out with no qualifications and a vicious streak.
Thus it became inevitable that free IE would win over the paid-for competition, including worthier projects such as Opera and Mozilla’s flying open sourcers. By the time Microsoft released IE 4.0, it was too late.
For those of you who weren’t around in 1997, this was the year that Microsoft went mental. IE 4.0 was batshit crazy. It took over all your software, wormed into the file browser, it infested your very PC desktop, and it was Proprietary City. I specifically recall the unforgettable Peter Jackson returning to the office after a Microsoft technical preview of the new browser, telling us that the company had gone mad. His published review of IE 4.0 called it “insane”.
Within weeks, users were complaining. Within months, the industry was suing. Taken to court over its insistence on making IE a mandatory integrated element of Windows, a seemingly self-destructive Microsoft tried to win favour with the judges by devoting vast resources to making IE slower, stupider and even more proprietary. Even Mac users were forced to use the bloody thing, in return for Microsoft’s financial investment that ultimately saved Apple.
Those who were not obliged to use IE deserted it long ago. Yet it remained the dominant web browser in the year 2000 and beyond simply because Joe Public hasn’t a clue what a web browser is.
I know this for a fact by the number of otherwise sane individuals I have met outside the IT industry who, before the modern era of broadband providers, were members of AOL. They would make me tea and ask if I wouldn’t mind having a look at their computer because it was “acting funny”. Of course it was acting funny: it had AOL on it. I’d slurp down the remainder of my tea and ginger nuts and tell them: “You’re on your own, pal.”
While CompuServe and Spry Mosaic in their day made a poor package, they were masterpieces of software design compared with the turgid and self-destructive mess that AOL served up ten years later. If CompuServe was junkware, AOL was slugware. AOL users must have thought Internet Explorer was fantastic, or at least perhaps they thought the web was supposed to behave like wonky shit.
The broadband generation is much more clued up about these things now, with most people choosing popular web browsers that are, to a greater or less extent, standards-based: Chrome, Firefox, Safari. It seems the only people still stuck with IE are corporates who are too scared to change in case it turns out that the whole basis of Western civilisation depends on a legacy (and, of course, proprietary) IE plug-in.
Working in digital publishing over the last few years, I have developed a mantra during consultancy and training at these large organisations: “Launch your web browser. No, not that one. Internet Explorer is not a web browser.”
If it’s not a web browser, what is it? To my mind, it’s a heavyweight, lard-arsed, fat bastard of a program for searching Bing. It serves no other useful purpose, and even “searching Bing” stretches the definition of “useful” somewhat beyond any logical measure of credulity. Like this weekly column, IE can be categorised under the more accurate definition “unnecessary”. It may be free but who needs it? Who wants it?
In an attempt to claw back the good old days, Microsoft has announced a new web browser development project called Spartan, which is a dubious name if ever there was one. The company seems to think the name suggests simplicity, speed and hardiness. This is funny because “spartan” actually describes something austere, empty and lacking in comfort. If it suggests anything at all, it’s that you’ll run the program and find nothing in it.
For others, no doubt, Spartan evokes visions of a homo-erotic orgy of green-screen Persian-hacking. Perhaps if you don’t like Spartan, it will throw all your data down a bottomless pit. The name certainly hints at a bit of the old Microsoft willy waving.
Although Microsoft says it has no intention yet of killing off IE altogether, it’s a ship that has been taking in water for far too long to be salvageable, and it seems probable that Microsoft’s Rose will allow IE’s Jack to silently sink into the murky depths while no-one is looking.
Its epitaph will read thus ... Internet Explorer: the web browser they couldn’t even give away. ®
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He looks forward to a day when he needs only one web browser but that rather depends on both the browser and all websites throughout the world making an effort to adhere to web standards. For heaven’s sake, they’re called “web standards” for a reason.