Browser Wars Part 2: How the Web Was Won

This part 2 of the story of browser wars. Be sure to check out part 1 to get all caught up.

As Netscape’s success grew, Microsoft got their own browser ready.

It was called Internet Explorer. And version 1 was released fifteen days after Netscape’s IPO. The browser team at Microsoft was still very small, so the code itself was (somewhat ironically) licensed from Spyglass Mosaic, a fork of the code Andreessen himself had worked on.

IE was, at first, far from impressive. It was released as an at-retail extension for Windows ’95, and initially, did very little to damage Netscape’s market share. With a choice between a world class browser everyone’s talking about, and a slower, pared down version that integrated with Windows, most people chose the former.

Then came December 7, 1995. Hot off the heels of version 2 of Internet Explorer, which showed some major improvements in a few short months, Bill Gates held a press conference. His intent was to lay out Microsoft’s web strategy. Those out there with some knowledge of World War II might recognize that date. It’s the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks. Naturally, the press had a field day.

“Microsoft Storms the Web,” one headline read. “Microsoft Takes War to the Net” read another.

In fact, the tone was a bit more restrained than that (but maybe only a little). During the press conference, Gates announced that Microsoft would be even more committed to the web in the coming months. The Internet was Microsoft’s next big play. As for the competition? Well, it was pretty clear that Gates didn’t want to just enter the marketplace. He wanted to dominate it.

For the next few years, Netscape and Microsoft waged war (these were the Browser Wars after all). It was not uncommon to see a new minor release of each browser every month. For most users, this battle raged way over their heads. All they saw where a whirlwind of new features. There came esoteric plugin support, proprietary presentational HTML elements and all sorts of unique hacks. Even when one browser or the other supported web standards, they did so only at a surface level. So when features were “supported” by both browsers, they would often be interpreted and rendered in completely different ways.

Now imagine, for a moment, that you were a web designer at this time. You’re still trying to work your way through the HTML specification, which is at this point still kind of dry and vague. But then Netscape says you can add a scrolling banner to the top of your site! So you add it. But it doesn’t work in Internet Explorer. But in Internet Explorer, you can take advantage of CSS positioning. Of course, that wouldn’t look right in Netscape’s browser.

Is it any wonder that in the mid to late 90’s it was common to see banners on sites that read “Best displayed on Netscape” or “Best displayed on Internet Explorer.” Without standards to guide an ever confounding number of features, and with the two companies mostly at odds, support was fractured and uneven. Many developers had no choice but to tailor their websites for one browser or the other. Of course, it was ultimately the users that suffered.

Meanwhile, the two browsers only scaled up their efforts.

By version 3, Netscape had introduced a good amount of features still in use today. Things like tables and frames, autofilling forms, and a more advanced version of Javascript. The release of this version also marked Netscape’s peak in terms of browser share, a startling 90%.

After that, Netscape began to focus on accompanying features. Starting with version 4, they added suite of tools to their browser, bundled together into Netscape Communicator. Communicator included tools for email, IRC and news. For many, this meant the convenience of having everything in one place. For others, this made the browser bloated and unwieldy.

Microsoft took a slightly different route. Instead of adding extensions to their browser, they leveraged their position in the personal computing marketplace. Which, in the 90’s, was basically a stranglehold. So even as Internet Explorer improved and caught up to Netscape, Microsoft started pushing their distribution channels. They gave away the browser for free to PC manufacturers and Internet Service Providers to bundle into their hardware. They lowered the price of their browser for Microsoft Windows users. And they paid large web portals like AOL to push users toward IE.

Then, with the release of Internet Explorer 3.0, Microsoft dropped the hammer. They included this version, for free, bundled right into the Windows ’95 operating system. No longer would users have to go to their local electronics shop and chose from a few competitive options. They would have a browser built right in that, frankly, works almost as well as any other option out there. For free. It even boasted some new unique features, like fairly broad CSS support.

All at once, Netscape’s pricing model completely fell apart.

On the morning of October 1, 1997, Netscape engineers came to their offices to kind of a strange sight. The night before, Microsoft employees had been celebrating the release of IE 4. A few of them hoisted a giant Internet Explorer logo model onto the back of a truck, brought it to Netscape and dumped it in their corporate office’s fountain. Later that day, Netscape engineers hoisted their own Mozilla logo on top of the E and added a sign. It said “Netscape: 72, Microsoft: 18,” the current split of the browser market. But that changed. And fast. The release of Internet Explorer 4 for free, and Microsoft’s aggressive push to distribute it, started to turn things in their favor.

Netscape continued to innovate, but they knew they couldn’t keep up. So in January of 1998, they open sourced their browser, and began giving it away for free. But even that wasn’t enough. By the end of 1998, Microsoft had claimed 50% of the market. By 1999, that had risen to almost 80%. The tables had officially turned.

Microsoft’s efforts wouldn’t go completely unchecked. For one thing, Microsoft had licensed their code from Spyglass with the promise of royalties from total sales. When they started giving away their browser for free, Spyglass sued for the share of profits they would now never see. They settled out of court, but it wasn’t long before Spyglass faded from existence altogether.

Then, of course, were the charges brought against Microsoft by the United States Government. In the summer of 1998, Microsoft went on trial for violating antitrust laws and a consent decree from a few years previous. The US Department of Justice argued that by giving away their browser for free, and bundling it into their operating system, they forced consumers to use their product and pushed competitors out of the market. This, along with the hostile pressure that Microsoft put on manufacturers to include Internet Explorer in their platforms, created a monopoly position for the company.

Microsoft’s argument was that Internet Explorer was an integral piece of their operating system, and that Windows ’98 couldn’t function without it. But that argument proved to be flimsy. In his deposition, Gates often came off as arrogant and evasive, and the evidence against Microsoft seemed staggering. Executives from multiple companies, including AOL, testified that Microsoft had pressured them into prioritizing Internet Explorer. These companies were told that they were either with or against Microsoft. The trial would last for years, and Gates caught most of the pressure.

In 2000, the presiding Judge issued his findings of fact, which, among other things, found that Microsoft was abusing a monopoly position, and that it should be broken up into two companies. This was eventually overturned by an appeals court, but it was enough to rattle Bill Gates for years to come, and leave Microsoft reeling from the process.

In November of 1998, Netscape was sold to AOL for $4.2 billion. It was the end of an era, and, as it turns out, the beginning of the end. Netscape continued to release new versions of their browser for years to come. But as their priorities shifted towards enterprise software, the browser suffered. Eventually, Microsoft wrestled almost complete control over the market.

By the early 2000’s, the Browser Wars ended, and a period of stagnation followed. But just on the horizon, a few open source browsers waited in the wings, ready to offer another bout of competition.

Added to the Timeline

November 24, 1998 - AOL Acquires Netscape In a surprising move, AOL acquires Netscape for $4.2 billion. Surprising because at the time, AOL pushed Internet Explorer, Netscape's biggest rival. The company would later testify that they did so only under pressure from Microsoft. For Netscape, this sale marked the beginning of the end, with focus shifting  away from their browser.
October 1, 1997 - Internet Explorer 4.0 The fourth version of Microsoft's browser is bundled for free and deeply integrated with the Windows operating system. IE 4 would go on to surpass Netscape's market share during the infamous "Browser Wars," but its distribution methods would be called into question during an antitrust lawsuit brought against Microsoft .
August 15, 1995 - Internet Explorer 1.0 In order to compete with Netscape, Microsoft enters the market with a browser of their own. In its first version, Internet Explorer is mostly licensed code from Spyglass Mosaic, though this is eventually rewritten. It lacked crucial features, but subsequent versions of Internet Explorer would see marked improvements.
View the Full Timeline