Microsoft's first serious attempt at a web browser, Internet Explorer 3.0, turned 25 on August 13. And one of the engineers on the team that created it – Hadi Partovi – has revealed how the product came to be, the mad rush to get it to market, and the cost of that effort.
The launch of Internet Explorer 3.0 was an important event in the so-called browser wars between Microsoft and Netscape.
For those who weren't there, or who have forgotten, in 1993 developers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications thought the World Wide Web could be quite big if it were easier to use – say, with a client that sported a GUI rather than a text interface.
That effort produced a browser called Mosaic, and one of its developers – a chap named Marc Andreessen – quickly productized it as Mosaic Netscape and started a company to market it. Netscape took off, as did the web.
Microsoft saw the web's potential and started work on a browser that became Internet Explorer 1.0. That work happened during Microsoft's massive push to create Windows 95 and give the world a cut of Windows that improved on the illogical nonsense that was Windows 3.1. Microsoft felt that Windows 95 was the product that would see it reach Bill Gates's goal of "a microcomputer on every desk and in every home running Microsoft software."
But as Netscape grew in popularity and the potential for a GUI-driven web became ever-more apparent, Microsoft knew it could only achieve that goal if Windows 95 included a web browser. While IE 1.0 made it into the OEM version of Windows that shipped from PC makers, it wasn't included in CD-ROMs of the OS. A Microsoft insider told The Register that lead times for printing, packaging, and distribution made its inclusion impossible - an omission that tells you a lot about how many Windows 95 installations were upgrades.
IE 2 came along a few months after the launch of Windows 95 but it again lacked features available in Netscape. The Microsoft browsers never gained much market share.
Partovi picks up the story at this point, when he worked in an internal startup Microsoft had created to build a browser capable of competing with Netscape.
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In a long Twitter thread, Partovi recalled the genesis of Internet Explorer 3.0. He mentions that Bill Gates wrote a company-wide memo that declared IE was critical, telling all other development teams to get behind it.
"Our inboxes exploded, but it made us feel important, and we worked even harder."
To motivate us more, I plastered the hallways with quotes from Netscape’s founder, Marc Andreessen: “Netscape will soon reduce Windows to a poorly debugged set of device drivers.” It reminded us that this new start-up threatened to destroy all of Microsoft.— Hadi Partovi (@hadip) August 14, 2021
And work they did: Partovi's thread describes the development effort as a long sprint and mentions 2am foosball games designed to help developers find some extra energy.
That kind of effort had unpleasant consequences.
Sadly, there were divorces and broken families and bad things that came out of that. But I also learned that even at a 20,000-person company, you can get a team of 100 people to work like their lives depend on it.— Hadi Partovi (@hadip) August 14, 2021
Partovi added to the thread to point out that his mention of the divorces has been misconstrued – there were only two. He added that the experience was very rewarding.
Every member of this team considered it a highlight of their career. And there was great mutual respect with the team at Netscape who are still my friends.— Hadi Partovi (@hadip) August 15, 2021
And he feels that working on IE 3.0 was a great experience.
Most Microsoft engineers made $1M+ then, regardless of team. But thousands wanted to join the IE3 team just to do their best work and give their all. And thousands considered it crazy and chose other teams. Anybody who left our team was quickly hired on other teams.— Hadi Partovi (@hadip) August 15, 2021
He also admits that Microsoft's browser efforts would have struggled without the company's near-monopoly on desktop operating systems.
Tech history explains this to be about Microsoft’s Windows monopoly, which surely played a role. But it wouldn’t have been possible if Microsoft didn’t also learn how to work on “Internet time.”— Hadi Partovi (@hadip) August 14, 2021
And that monopoly appears to have created hubris.
I didn’t have the heart to watch the slow death of my baby. I left Microsoft in 1999 and joined my former competitors from Netscape to start a startup together, Tellme Networks. I finally had a chance to apply all the lessons I had learned at Microsoft.— Hadi Partovi (@hadip) August 14, 2021
Partovi left out that IE 3.0 indirectly led to Microsoft's first big set of antitrust troubles, as Microsoft made it devilishly difficult to uninstall all of IE's components.
Microsoft defended that on grounds that some of those components made it easier for developers to include HTML forms in their Windows products. Others saw it differently and IE's persistence became a key element of antitrust action against Redmond that, for a time, looked like it could see the corporation broken up.
Courts eventually decided on less severe remedies.
But IE's woes continued. IE 4.0 gave the world Active Desktop, an odd attempt to replicate push services like PointCast that piped content onto the desktop. IE 6.0 gave Microsoft years of trouble over poor security, fueling the company's reputation for foisting shabby software on its customers.
Microsoft was eventually reduced to recommending customers uninstall IE 6.0. Your correspondent was once told, by a senior Microsoft person, that CIOs resisted that call because IE 6.0 rendered early versions of Facebook very badly – so badly that it improved staff productivity!
Redmond, of course, killed IE last year, after deciding it had no business building browser engines any more and adopting the Chromium engine spawned by Google.
Partovi went on to found the Hour of Code movement and is now CEO of code.org. ®
Editor's note: This article was revised after publication to clarify the timeline of Internet Explorer's development. We are happy to make these changes.