Read the Story of the Rise, Fall, and Rehabilitation of Internet Explorer

For some good weekend reading, Mary Branscombe has a good story on the history of Internet Explorer. Branscombe got access to many former Microsoft executives who worked on Internet Explorer. While a few years back IE hit a low of under 50% it is beginning to gain marketshare again and is now nearing near 60%. IE11 remains highly competitive especially on touchscreen PCs.

Joe Belfiore is now in charge of IE, but since IE7 the public face of the browser had been Dean Hachamovich. Steven Sinofsky and Hachamovich were good friends and Dean reported directly to Sinofsky for many years. They both played an important role in IE’s rehabilitation. Hachamovich went to work for Microsoft Research after Terry Myerson took over Windows.

It is interesting to note that IE is also moving a lot faster; IE 10 arrived 18 months after IE 9, IE 11 came along after just a year and the IE 11 update in just six months. A new IE release every six months fits in nicely with the rumored bi-annual release cadence of Windows.

Here are a few excerpts from the first page of Branscombe’s piece:

Stranded on the Cornell university campus at the end of a recruiting trip in February 1994 by a snow storm, Steven Sinofsky — then technical assistant to Bill Gates — wandered through the computing rooms to find students using not Microsoft Office and other desktop software but web browsers. He emailed Gates and his team a warning; Cornell is WIRED!

That got more attention than J Allard’s memo the previous month which he’d titled “Windows: the next killer application for the Internet”. Allard had been trying to get Microsoft to take the Internet seriously since he joined the company in 1991, and created the company’s first Internet server as part of a skunkworks project. He thought Microsoft should build its own browser and tried to convince Russell Siegelman to base Microsoft’s planned MSN service on web technologies rather than a proprietary system.

The problem was that Gates didn’t see how you could make money from the Internet. The group at the retreat decided to add TCP/IP support to Windows 95 and give Word the option of saving documents as Web pages, but nothing more radical. That soon came to look like a mistake as Sun worked on Java, promising a future where the web could deliver programs to any computer, and PDF started to replace Word files on the internet as a way of distributing documents. Both Windows and Office began to look threatened. Bill Gates’s famous Internet Tidal Wave memo came out in May 1995, just a few days after Sun launched Java, and in November 1995 Goldman Sachs took Microsoft off its “buy” list because of the Internet threat.

In fact, Microsoft had already started work on its own browser, first trying to buy the BookLink browser Sinofsky spotted at the Comdex show in 1994 only to see AOL snap it up for $30 million, then licensing code from Spyglass who had the rights to NCSA Mosaic — the very first graphical browser, built by graduate students who worked for Larry Smarr.

The Internet Explorer team grew and grew, from half a dozen people working on the first version under Ben Slivka, to nearly a hundred people working on IE 3 under Brad Silverberg, who was fresh from the success of delivering Windows 95 and became head of the new Internet Platform and Tools division in February 1996. By the time IE 5 shipped in 1999, there were 1,000 people on the IE team, but it was Silverberg’s team of “superstars” (as he and the other managers of IE still refer to them), who worked day and night to build what they thought was the future of the company.

“The most incredible product team I ever worked with,” Silverberg told us. “Such a small team, so many unbelievable superstars all working together as a team in some of the most inspired work of their career, under massive pressure and the highest possible stakes. A bit like the original Mac team, the IE team felt like the vanguard of Microsoft, the vanguard of the industry, fighting for its life. Culminating in IE3 which was a brilliant product and changed the rules of the game, both for the industry and for Microsoft — showing Microsoft could be a leader and a good citizen. It was a reinvention of the Microsoft culture.”

“Our work was more than work,” remembers Hadi Partovi, the leader of IE product management until IE 5. “It was a passion and life mission.  We ate all our meals on the job; we worked very, very late nights. I would often go to sleep under my desk at 6 am only to wake up the next morning at 8 am ready for work. We had this sense that this multi-billion-dollar company was going to lose its future unless we could get ahead of the Internet wave, and that meant having the number one browser on the planet.”

Be sure to read the full story at Citeworld

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