Is it strange to feel nostalgia for a web browser, especially one you never liked, a product that in some ways encapsulates many of the tech industry’s worst sins?
Internet Explorer was finally shut down on June 15 after 27 years of existence, many of which have been the most popular – or, in many countries, the only – browser on the planet. The lifecycle of a technology product often mirrors that of a movie cowboy. It starts as an upstart, an outlaw roaming the streets of the internet, breaking the rules, trying to beat his competition. Successfully, he suddenly becomes the law in town, defining order and even society on his own terms. But then, before he even realizes anything is going on, another buzzing new thing suppresses him.
As is often the case with technology and business, Explorer’s success was built on the original sin of flight. In 1995, Microsoft, seeing that browsing was one thing and that the main player, Netscape, had nothing to do with its capital, wanted to participate. But rather than create something of its own, Microsoft licensed someone else’s design.
Right from the start, the software was pretty terrible – slow, buggy and ugly. Netscape was a much more attractive and easy to use product. But once Microsoft made the decision to start bundling Explorer with its ubiquitous Windows 95 operating system, Explorer became the world’s default browser, and Netscape’s virtues no longer mattered.
At this point, Microsoft stopped most of its payments to the company it had purchased its browser from, arguing that since Explorer was free, it had no more profits to share. Microsoft would end up having to pay $8 million to the company it ripped off.
I never liked Explorer or Windows. The software seemed to be constantly updated and yet crashed regularly. It seemed like Microsoft didn’t care about customer satisfaction either. It wasn’t really necessary; their software was on every computer. We had nowhere to go. In 1997, the company actually faced a federal lawsuit claiming that Explorer’s bundling with Windows 95 was a monopoly because it was trying to force PC owners to use Explorer. The case almost forced the company to create a separate company for the operating system and other software.
At a recent staff meeting, I asked everyone who had loved Explorer to share stories with me about why. The whole room laughs at this idea. Obviously, it is unlikely to be missed.
Is it weird to feel nostalgia for a web browser, especially one you never liked?
Still, the disappearance of a browser seems significant, even if the browser was terrible. For a time, Explorer was the how we got into what was then called the World Wide Web. It was both the window through which we caught a glimpse of this universe and the vehicle we rode inside. It may have been far more Edsel than Trans Am, but it was still our ride, for many of us our very first ride, and even in its own hampered form, it changed the way we look at our lives.
Browsers today have playful tech names, like Chrome or Firefox, and sell themselves on their sleek designs, privacy controls, and interconnectivity. Anything to distract us from the fact that most of them make money selling the information they gather by watching us use their product. (I personally don’t understand why anyone would choose a browser owned by a company whose business is based on extracting everything we search, watch and buy, and yetapparently some 80% of computer users do.)
In its early days, the naked capitalism of the tech world could have been more evident, the indolence and arrogance that comes with market share. But the longing was also more obvious and innocent. The internet was an endless landscape before us, and all we wanted to do was sit down and explore. Here are all those early Edsels that helped us start our journey.