Ghosts from the Past – A Story of Modern Day Browsing

Microsoft created ripples all across the globe when they launched their new campaign last week. Love it or hate it, IE is the world’s most popular browser, even today. The very fact that more than 56% of the world uses it speaks volumes for and with IE10 all set to hit the shelves, I can only expect these numbers to grow.

Personally, I hate IE with all my heart, including and especially IE6. It’s the most annoying browser I’ve ever seen, if you choose to ignore the brief moments I had with IE4 & IE 5. But there is no denying that IE made modern-day browsing what it is today. From early adoption of JavaScript to the latest HTML5 canvas, it has evolved so much over the years. Today, we’re going to take a look back at the evolution of the one browser that everyone loved to hate.

Taking a break from our regular reviews and how-to’s, we will take a trip down the memory lane and discover many fascinating facts about our favorite Windows ecosystem, in this new series once a month.

Spyglass Mosaic

Spyglass is widely known for their hugely popular Mosaic browser which fueled the first Internet boom way back in 1993. Almost all the modern-day browsers are based on Mosaic. Microsoft and Spyglass entered into a deal for their new browser which was later named as Internet Explorer, thus marking the beginning of an era.

Eventually the deal fell apart when they started bundling the browser and Microsoft had to pay a whooping $8 million settlement.

The gamechanger

The gamechanger

Where it all began

Microsoft began development of IE 1 in ’95 based on Mosaic. Although the source code of Mosaic wasn’t used, one could easily spot the resemblance. Internet Explorer 1 was launched in August 1995 along with Microsoft Plus! for Win95.

By the time Internet explorer 1.5 was launched, it was the first browser to include HTML table rendering support.

JavaScripting with IE2

Microsoft was quick to replace the original IE barely 3 months after it release, in November ’95. IE2 supported various languages and was the first Microsoft product to run on Mac.It was also one of the early graphical browser to support SSL, spell checker, VRML support, cookies, RSA, MIME, HTML3, JavaScript support and an integrated news &email client.

To woo the users of Netscape navigator(topping the charts at 90% at that time), IE even had a bookmark importer from Netscape. Even after all these innovations, IE just managed to get only 9% of the browser share.

Improved experience – IE3

Soon enough Microsoft realized that unless it starts leveraging its user base, it’ll never be able to reclaim its rightful share in the browser market. So Microsoft started bundling IE with Windows 95, at cost, which invited the lawsuit with Splyglass. It also included Internet mail and news, the Windows Address, book, applets, inline multimedia, Windows media player integration etc. It also included the support to view JPG and GIF files for the first time.

It also supported Netscape’s plugin technology, ActiveX, frames and a reverse engineered version of JavaScript called JScript but the most important of all was native CSS support. Microsoft was all set to take your browsing experience to the next level.

Deeper OS integration – IE4

Bundling IE was a huge success and for the first time Netscape started showing some signs of decline. So, Microsoft decided to take this OS-browser integration to the next level with Active Desktop in IE4 which in a way is a predecessor of RSS.

You can even say that IE4 is the mother of all innovations in Web that followed suit. With Trident, their layout processing engine for MSHTML, IE4 made webpages so interactive leading to developers having more control over the webpage. For enhanced security, MS used 128 bit encryption which became the defacto standard for all versions of the browser till IE7. Outlook replaced the age-old Internet mail.

Improved JS

Improved JS

With superior technology and high security(!), IE4 helped Microsoft attain almost 60% of the market share. Around this time, the DOJ sued Microsoft for monopolizing the market. The browser wars had officially began.

Internet Explorer 5 & AJAX

As the browser wars intensified, Microsoft released IE 5, the most advanced browser of its day. It supported bi-directional text, ruby characters, XSLT and advanced CSS1, CSS2 support. Smart Offline pages- the ability to view your webpages made its way through the Active desktop as well as favicon support.

Credit the never-ending game of browser one-upmanship that Netscape and Microsoft play. The new IE 5 trumped Netscape Communicator with smarter searching and accelerated browsing.

Internet Explorer 5

Internet Explorer 5

But most significant of all was the addition of XMLHttpRequest Object which lets you asynchronously transfer data between client and server side without having to reload your page, popularly dubbed as AJAX, giving birth to Web 2.0.

The IE6 fiasco

Many people associate IE6 to MS’ security woes but the trouble started with the more controversial Windows Script host feature. The ability to control the OS’s vital components through IE was exploited by a lot of malware making it an huge security. In fact, Trelawney’s prophecy, “Bugs and IE go hand in hand” came true with IE5. OK, I made that up but you still get my point.

Bugs and IE go hand in hand

May your soul rest in peace

May your soul rest in peace

IE6 was launched with XP, in the later half of 2001, with the intent of improving the security and stability of the platform. Ironically it made things worse and was dubbed as the most insecure browser ever.

On the brighter side, MS added some little DHTML enhancements, DOM support, fault collection, automatic resizing, improved CSS support with many new properties. They even managed to fix their annoying box model problem which made it impossible for the developers to develop websites for IE.

It’s impossible to write-off IE6 as a complete disaster. In 2004, 4 years since its release IE6 dominated the world with 90% of the browser share, eradicating Netscape. Even today around 10%(half of that population are my relatives, seriously) of the world is still using IE6 forcing Microsoft to pull the plug.

What made IE6 the most hated browser in the world? If it’s hated so much, why people are still using it? Well, there is no one answer to this question. Taking forever to provide hot fixes did make things worse. Another thing is it took Microsoft a good 5 years to come up with the next version of their browser which made things worse while Mozilla managed to release 4 versions in between. And with the absence of any forceful update in place like Firefox/ Chrome the game was long lost.

IE7, Tabbed browsing

After 5 long years, MS launched IE7 with some major updates. First off, it supported the long-awaited tabbed browsing following Firefox.It also had an improved architecture, rendering engine and a better security framework.Some new features include an integrated search bar, better internationalization and a phishing filter.

Tabbed browsing, Yay!

Tabbed browsing, Yay!

It also had tighter security controls, a separate process for ActiveX controls and removed Active Desktop for starters. Even with all these enhancements it still failed the ACID tests.

Breaking the ACID Test Barrier With IE8

IE’s market share was falling rapidly thanks to Firefox superior browsing ability. With developing pages for IE becoming incredibly difficult, developers started shunning away from IE. It took MS long enough to realize this and decided to build something that adopts all the best practices. After 2 years of toil they came up with IE8, the first of its kind to pass the Acid2 test and probably the last of all modern-day browsers to do so.

Improved browsing

Improved browsing

It included Developer tools to debug JS directly from the browser, similar to Firebug. It began a new era of browsing privacy through the InPrivate browsing.

IE8 was also the most stable browser written by MS; it treated every tab as a separate process thus making it less susceptible to crashes. Another important feature to note is Web Slices. With this a user can subscribe to any snippet of any page which can be viewed directly from the Favorites toolbar. IE8 also improved the group policy and it offered the flexibility of blocking ActiveX snippets on a site basis, offering you more flexibility over what runs on your PC.

Finally, IE9

IE9 is the best browser that I’ve ever used, period. For the first time, it supports almost all the major standards, from CSS3 to HTML5, natively. It also includes a hardware accelerator, leveraging your system resources to improve the performance.

Microsoft calls IE9 “Beauty of the Web” and rightly so. IE9 is absolutely gorgeous: the tabs are neatly stacked up, unnecessary toolbars have been removed making more space for view port and so on. It even has an add-on manager which tells you which add-on slows down your performance.

IE9 is powered by a new JS engine, Charkra, which uses JIT compilation for a far superior Javascript performance even surpassing Chrome. It scored a whooping 93 in the Acid3 tests.

I'll do anything for you,  my love

I'll do anything for you, my love

A recent study by MS has revealed that IE9 blocked 99% malware followed by Chrome at a meagre 13%. Thanks to all the hard work, MS has started to regain its lost foot. For 3 months in a row now, its market share has been increasing

Wrapping Up

Pretty rough ride, isn’t it? More than half a decade after the IE6 fiasco, Microsoft is finally back in the right direction. With Windows 8 and IE 10 all set to be released, I can only hope for the best. But whatever be the outcome, Internet explorer has made the web a better place than it used to be. They gave us AJAX, they gave us hardware acceleration from your browser, they gave the fastest JS engine. It’s finally time for us to shun away the once popular “I’m a IE hater” tag.

Have any interesting facts to share? Feel free to join us in the discussion and thanks a bunch for reading.


  • http://www.bhall.com Brian Hall

    Unfortunately, IE still has a long way to go in terms of supporting open web standards. Designing and developing a web site for IE support is a major headache. There are HTML5 and CSS3 features that all other modern browsers support, but unfortunately, IE does not. Let’s hope IE 10 offers more progress in this area.

    • http://www.skmvasu.com Vasu

      Yes, Brian.IE does have a long way to go before it takes over Chrome and Firefox. But with IE9 these dependencies have reduced and for the first time websites look better in IE9 without any extra effort from the developer. We must credit Microsoft for that and bringing us this wonderful browser to us.

      I hear some pretty rave reviews about IE10(beta) released alongside with Win8 consumer preview. If I can take them at face value, then we’ve an exciting year ahead :)

  • Kamal Nasser

    You forgot IE10 :)
    1. Metro version
    2. More support for HTML5 and such stuff.

    • http://www.skmvasu.com Vasu

      Thanks for joining the discussion Nasser. I haven’t tried IE10 personally, that is why I haven’t included it here. But based on what I hear, Microsoft has done a great job. Let’s hope it’s good enough to pip Chrome/ Firefox.

      • Kamal Nasser

        It is way better than older versions, but not good enough to beat chrome and/or firefox. Some websites are /starting/ to appear correctly :lol:

  • Jeff

    IE9 was really good. Hope MS comes with something amazing with IE10.

  • Stuart

    Re. Outlook replaced the age-old Internet mail.

    It may seem pedantic of me to point this out, but it was Outlook Express, not Outlook (as you know, they are/were two VERY different beasts! :))

    Nice article – brought back memories of being totally blown away by Mosaic after using Gopher http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gopher_(protocol)

  • Jon

    I’ve stopped using IE since Firefox 1. But IE10 looks good. Why don’t you guys write a detailed review on that?

  • Chris

    Nice write up. Brought back avant days – tabbed browsing for IE6

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