What were the browser wars of the 1990s?

I remember hearing about browser wars and dot com companies making millions back in the 1990s. Did internet companies then care about me using Netscape or Internet Explorer?

Why? I’ve gone from Internet Explorer to Firefox to Chrome over the years with Windows PCs and laptops. I never really thought that any company cared that I use or don’t use their browser. My previous job had an old software program that would only run IE and my current part time job claims I can ONLY use google chrome for their software. Not wanting to be fired, I haven’t tried it on another browser, but I still don’t see what the big deal is.

Web pages are more universal now than they used to be. Back in the day, companies cared what browser was used for two reasons 1) They charged companies for the software used to build the web pages; including the use of proprietary html codes only viewable through certain browswers; 2) They initially even charged for commercial use of their browsers. So, while a private user of Netscape Navigator could download the browser for free, corporations had to pay for it. And back then, companies were willing to pay, because it was viewed as any other type of software: commercial licenses cost money.
The war really got crazy when Microsoft did two things. They offered their Internet Explorer for free, even to corporations, and then they included it with every copy of Windows! Netscape sued on anti-trust grounds saying that this constituted a monopoly.
As a result of the lawsuit, Microsoft had to share it’s source code. Eventually, everything changed to what we have today where web pages are universal and pretty much nobody cares what browser or computer you have, or what phone you’re accessing the page from, etc.
You almost never see a web page with a “Best Viewed with Netscape Navigator 5.0” or whatever on websites anymore. Pages display basically the same no matter what (with the exception of maybe Java-based pages, but that’s because it’s going away due to security issues; most pages don’t require it anymore and some browsers no longer support it).

The browser wars of the 1990s were the first skirmish in the Internet Platform War.

Microsoft correctly realized that the Internet was going to be huge, and that whoever controlled the user access to it would sit at a valuable crossroads, able to extract rents from users and producers. But Microsoft already had a powerful platform (Windows) that got them lots of rents. So they released a free browser to kill upstart Netscape.

The general fight is still ongoing, but it’s moved beyond web browsers. App stores, search engines, mobile OSes, social networking. They’re all attempts to become a middleman that can control what users see and what will be sold to them.

Although web standards keep increasing, the business plan of “embrace and extend” still exists. Google does this a lot. They support all the web standards, but they also keep adding stuff that doesn’t work on anything but Chrome, because then Chrome becomes the browser that supports everything, and people start to use Chrome more. Because Google is itself developing a bunch of the products that people want to use with Chrome, they can do so much more effectively and nimbly than their competitors, who have to invest engineering time in supporting the new thing that Youtube or Gmail or Google Earth does.

True for most things, although Microsoft still has an integration to SharePoint. Some SharePoint features, like opening a library in Windows File Explorer, are available only if you are using a Microsoft browser.

IIRC, Microsoft basically did some integration work between Windows and IE 3, and then claimed that the browser was part of the operating system, which was why they were giving it away for free.

Microsoft has been fairly infamous for doing this exact thing with other software packages- they leave something out, someone else develops a third-party version, and then Microsoft swoops in, and claims that their competitive offering is “part of the OS”, and drives the other guys out of business. In some cases that approach works, and in others it doesn’t.

It was a big battle at the time with potentially a huge amount of money on the line. Which is why it always amazed me that Netscape and IE were both buggy pieces of absolute crap. I always thought that if either side wanted to actually win the browser war that fixing all of the major bugs would be a good start towards attracting customers. But then both sides were more interested in putting out new features than making existing features work properly.

Because of this emphasis on features and a complete lack of emphasis on bug fixing, many sites practically required one browser or the other in order to work properly, either because the site implemented a feature that wasn’t present in the other browser yet or because it implemented a feature that was completely borked in the other browser due to bugs. It wasn’t like today when you can visit just about any site on the internet and have it work properly regardless of what browser you are using.

Today there are formal standards that browsers must adhere to, and web sites must also follow if they expect browsers to render their site properly. Back in the IE/Netscape days, there were some basic standards that all browsers were expected to be able to render properly, but IE and Netscape both had numerous advanced features that were not part of any standard. Once a feature became adopted by both browsers, then it would later become part of the rapidly evolving “standards” for web browsers.

Regular users just wanted to be able to surf the entire net using one browser, so the big browser wars between Microsoft and Netscape resulted in a lot of backlash and a push to create industry standards that everyone adhered to, which is where we are today.

Microsoft was a bit behind the curve, actually. It wasn’t until Netscape began making nice big profits that Microsoft got interested. Microsoft can be a bit clueless at times but they smell money better than a shark smells blood in the water. Microsoft ended up licensing Mosaic (the grand-daddy of browsers, who won out in an earlier and much less publicized browser battle) and used Mosaic to create IE 1.0. Microsoft then launched its now-infamous campaign to completely wipe out Netscape.

Here’s an article from the time of the anti-trust litigation, dissecting Gates’ memo to MS execs about internet strategy.

The key point from my non-techie perspective is that Gates seemed to think of the Internet as something that he could get market share on,and make money from proprietary controls on his share of the Internet, similar to AOL and Compuserve, only bigger and more Gatesian. He wasn’t thinking of it as a wide-open free service that anyone could play with.

If that was his understanding, it makes sense to drive out other browsers, just like Word drove out WordStar and WordPerfect, because the browser would be the key to getting market share and monetizing that share of the internet.

In retrospect, history has totally vindicated Microsoft here. Can you imagine an OS shipping without a built-in web browser? It’s just part of the bundle of basic software that we expect to be included in any OS these days.

And this tactic is now just normal operation for any OS maker. When a 3rd party utility proves to be useful, it very often makes its way into the default distribution of a future OS release.

Because you need some way to download Chrome.

Back then a lot of people new to computers were very nervous about downloading software, and the download process was much slower (think dialup) and more complicated than it is today. The issue was Microsoft trying to discourage computer makers from including Netscape on their products.

The reason computer makers load things on to the computer before shipping it (at least back then) is that with so many hardware configurations, system test requires that the software be tested (at least opened) on the very machine going to the customer. I heard a fascinating talk by someone from Dell on this. They had (20 years ago) hundreds of thousands of possible hardware configurations.
The browser is not part of the OS, despite what Microsoft claimed, since you can get along fine without using IE or now Edge ever.

You just go down to Fry’s and purchase the Chrome CD and install it on your computer, right?

If your tablet doesn’t have a CD reader, it’s obviously defective and you should exchange it for a new one.

Can you completely delete Explorer and Edge from your Windows system without affecting functionality?

It makes sense that Google would do all this, because they are foremost a spyware operation, so having their own browser is their natural product.

Here’s a report from Washington Post on Chrome:

Goodbye, Chrome: Google’s Web browser has become spy software, Geoffrey A. Fowler, Technology Columnist, Washington Post, July 21, 2019.

It’s a little more complex then that. The integration of “The Browser” into “The OS” gave MS an “active desktop” — like the home screen of an iPhone or Android smartphone. And HTML email – like the email you read in your gmail app or in your web browser. And hypertext help. And other stuff.

In retrospect they were right, but at the time, none of their users cared, and the whole “integrated into the OS” thing was seen as just a dishonest excuse for bundling the browser with the OS.

Perhaps it was just a dishonest excuse. But it’s certainly interesting to see that the user interface ideas they were building in 1995 became popular in 2010.
And it’s tempting to think that the reason their UI design stagnated is because (a) users didn’t want an active desktop or dynamic Apps in 2000, and (b) their technology direction for providing an interactive OS and App interface was blocked by the courts.

This was a key point MS repeatedly claimed during the antitrust trial*. But then the government brought in witnesses who showed how easy it was to remove IE completely without affecting anything.

Oh, hahahahaha. Wow. That’s funny. Right. “Standards” that both browsers and web sites “must” adhere to. Good one.

  • Thanks to that and similar trials we somehow magically got the idea that you’re not a monopoly if you don’t have 100% of the market. Companies used to get knocked back when they tried to grab 40% of the market. E.g., when Office Depot tried to take over Office Max the first time.

That’s my question, which I asked upthread: is it possible to delete Explorer and Edge entirely from current Windows? Can Windows operate without those apps?

Browsers don’t put cookies onto your computer; webpages do. And any browser can be configured to change which cookies get allowed and which don’t.

I mean, yes, but you can read that as malicious (as the Justice Department did) or as benign. The benign reading is that Microsoft saw that people were going to need a browser and that including that functionality in their bundle of services would make Windows a better product that would make more people buy it.

This is really common in software, and Microsoft is basically the only one who ever got punished for it. You used to have to buy separate software to compress and decompress files. Now Windows just does it. You used to have to buy separate software to decode and play certain types of media. Now Windows just does it. You used to have to buy separate software to change the color temperature of your monitor when the sun goes down. Now iOS (and I think Android?) just include that feature.

I’m not sure I buy the argument that users don’t care about these things, either. Sure, if you ask users if they want html email, many of them will have no idea what you’re talking about, but almost everyone uses html email these days. Any modern OS that shipped with an email client (and, yes, every OS should ship with a built-in email client) that didn’t support html email would be rightly and roundly derided.

So if you buy the idea that today an OS should ship with this kind of support and they didn’t used to, it seems hard to make the argument that the specific point at which Microsoft added that support was anticompetitive and not just building the future of operating systems we know today.

I think you might be using a different definition for “part of the OS”. You can get along fine without using a window manager too, but that doesn’t make it not part of the OS. The OS that Microsoft sells is a massive bundle of different pieces of software, and they decided to include a browser in that bundle. Also, according to Microsoft, they made technical decisions in the design that caused code to be shared between the browser and other components of the OS.

Again, you can read those decisions as malicious: MS didn’t really need to tightly tie their browser code into other code, they did it to make a fake legal argument that they couldn’t pull the browser. But that kind of thing happens for non-nefarious reasons all the time in software. Once you have a bit of code that does something, it’s very easy for other places where you need to do that thing to just use the code that exists. If you look at Microsofts source in general, I expect that this is common and had nothing to do with any legal arguments they might have needed to make.

Northern Piper, I expect that the answer to your question is going to rely heavily on the specific semantics of what it means to delete software entirely. Can you remove the application framework that is called “Explorer” or “Edge”? Probably pretty easily. Can you remove all the library code that actually does html rendering? Almost certainly not. If you do the former but not the latter, can someone manage to render a webpage in some unholy combination of default shipping Windows pieces? Maybe…

All this is just re-arguing the are they or aren’t they question about Microsoft and monopoly abuse 25 years ago. There are a few big differences between now and then. Back then Microsoft had a monopoly in the desktop market. A few also rans, and this silly company called Apple (not worth buying any stock in them), held a few percent of the market compared to Microsoft’s behemoth share.

A key factor for Microsoft was the lock they held over computer manufacturers. PCs would not sell without Windows, and don’t bother arguing a few niche cases, I’m talking Circuit City, CDW, and corporate contracts. In order to get favorable pricing from Microsoft the computer sellers had to do things like pay for a Windows license for all computers they sold, whether it contained Windows or not. They also were very limited in what they could add or remove from the base Windows install. Add a bunch of bloatware crap? Absolutely, go nuts, just don’t install anything that competes with a core Microsoft product. Remove something Microsoft thinks should be installed? Never.

So at this point Microsoft is already taking advantage of the monopoly status of Windows to try and keep Windows dominant in the market.

Then the Internet comes up and takes Microsoft by surprise. They buy a browser, and include it with Windows. Remember, OEMs are not allowed to remove the browser or install a competing one. All of the sudden Microsoft goes from barely acknowledging the Internet exists (trumpet winsock anyone?) to having a huge share of the browser market.

The next step is to attempt to leverage this share of the browser market into Windows lock-in for the Internet. This brought about lots of Internet Explorer specific html extensions and ActiveX (how did we get this far in the thread without mentioning ActiveX?).

Back then JavaScript was not nearly as powerful as today, HTML5 was decades away, and dynamic websites required things like Java, Flash, Shockwave, and ActiveX. Microsoft’s dream was that the web wouldn’t be OS independent, as it is (mostly) today, but rather someplace that required Windows and Internet Explorer to visit. They even came out with Internet Explorer for the Mac, to suck up that last few percent of the commercial desktop space.

Those of us who used alternative OSes back then can remember a time of pain when any given website might not work properly anywhere except Internet Explorer. Sometimes it was just bling and doodads that broke, but often it was core functionality. I changed banks just to get to one with a website that didn’t require Internet Explorer; back when online banking was rare and special.

The trial ended with a slap on the wrist for Microsoft, but it scared them enough that they backed off most of the worst of these plans. Other things happened, like standards became more important, java applets and ActiveX died out, while flash hung on for a decade or so, mostly because it was necessary to watch youtube and Homestarrunner.

Since that time, and even back then, Microsoft integrated many other things into the default install of Windows, such as the mentioned media playback and compression. Some of that isn’t a big deal, because the danger to open computing is not nearly as severe as a closed web would have been. For example, it might be bad if you make WinZip, but not a problem for everybody else. Also, monopoly enforcement has gotten even more relaxed since then, so a behavior that might have triggered an investigation in 1995 is good for investors today.

Yeah, exactly. I’m saying with the benefit of hindsight, it’s not obvious to me that Microsoft was in the wrong here. Again, you can read their actions as malicious, but you can also say that Microsoft saw that people wanted web browsers and decided to bundle one in with the rest of their product. Because it makes Windows better.

Shouldn’t the takeaway from the way that history turned out indicate that Microsoft didn’t actually have the stranglehold that people thought they did? Apple beat them despite it (and, for what it’s worth, Apple’s dominant OS comes with a browser pre-installed and you’re not allowed to install other ones ;)) Google beat them despite OS and browser dominance. Amazon(!) beat them, despite being a bookstore at the time (?).

I also think it’s notable that no one pays for web browsers these days. For a long time Opera was paid software, but I can’t figure out how to buy anything from them these days. Are there any paid web browsers left? One interpretation of this is that Microsoft so crushed Netflix that they changed the course of software history, but I think that’s wrong. I think the conclusion that we should draw is that browsers were inevitably going to become part of the basic bundled functionality included by operating systems. The arc of software development is long, but it bends toward free.

Aren’t those statements kind of contradictory? I mean, if computers won’t sell without Windows, then having to pay a license for all computers seems more like a way of keeping OEMs from not actually paying for all the windows licenses they used (which was a real problem in those days) than it was of nefarious actions.

I read the Federal Complaint, and it doesn’t say that OEMs couldn’t install other stuff. It just said they couldn’t alter the standard boot sequence or desktop appearance. Again, the non-malicious interpretation of this isn’t hard to see. Microsoft wants there to be a uniform look to Windows computers because they want anyone who’s booted up and started using a Windows computer to be familiar with them. Ask anyone who did tech support in the 90s, and it’s pretty important that a random user with very limited technical skills just had to know “double click on the blue e to get internets”. That makes the Windows experience better. It’s bad for Netscape, but in many ways I think that it’s probably net better for most people. Just like every time Apple releases a new iOS feature that used to be a paid app it’s bad for the developers of the app, but it’s great for me and the legions of other iPhone users, who now get a cool new feature for free.

And the tumultuous history of all the companies that outcompeted Microsoft despite their alleged market dominance makes me suspect that their alleged power to abuse their monopoly wasn’t nearly as big as anyone thought. I mean, I owned a Windows phone, one of the pre-iPhone fullscreen ones. They had those for years before the iPhone! And total desktop dominance! They were surely going to own that market too. But they lost to Apple because they sucked. Just like Internet Explorer lost to Firefox and Chrome despite all its advantages. It sucked and the market responded.

ETA: I typed “Netflix” instead of “Netscape” like a dozen times. I think I caught them all, but if not: I meant Netscape.