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No. 3181:
Internet Explorer Falls

by Andy Boyd

Today, Goliath stumbles. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The start of the new millennium saw Microsoft riding high. It had long dominated the personal computer market with its Windows operating system, and it had leveraged that dominance to monopolize access to the World Wide Web through its web browser Internet Explorer. Such efforts made Microsoft the most highly valued company on the planet. But that was about to change.

Internet Explorer icon
Internet Explorer icon   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Microsoft monopolized web access by driving its main competitor - Netscape - out of business. But Netscape didn't go quietly. Instead, it released its computer code into the public domain. The idea was to allow programmers worldwide to work on and improve the code in the hope that it would blossom. The non-profit organization that came to coordinate these efforts was Mozilla. The web browser that emerged was named Phoenix, in hope that this mythical bird would rise from the ashes of Netscape. But for legal reasons, the name was soon changed to Firefox.


Phoenix on Windows XP
Phoenix on Windows XP   Photo Credit: Wikimedia


Mozilla Firefox logo
Mozilla Firefox logo   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Firefox slowly gained traction, and by 2010 it had been instrumental in reducing Microsoft's share of the browser market to less than sixty percent - a phenomenal achievement. But even more interesting things were taking place just across the street from the home of Firefox.

A small company called Google had been busy coming from nowhere to establish a commanding lead in the market for search engines. Even so, Google feared what most other companies did at the time: Microsoft. As a result, Google threw its weight behind Firefox. But as the company grew, a decision was made to create its own web browser. So in 2008, Google rolled out its first release of the web browser, Chrome.

Google Chrome icon
Google Chrome icon   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

If Google was concerned about Microsoft, Microsoft was equally concerned about Google and its launch of Chrome. To understand why, we need to understand one of the important overarching themes in personal computing: movement from the personal computer onto the web. Before the web, every program we used sat on our personal computers. We bought CDs and loaded the programs at home. Today, we not only load programs straight from the internet, many of the programs we use aren't even on our computers - they're running somewhere else in what we collectively refer to as the cloud.

And as we migrate to the cloud, Microsoft Windows becomes less and less important. That made the release of Chrome a potential threat to Microsoft's business model.

Google was well aware of this as it kept a careful eye on how the digital world was evolving. Over time, Chrome proved popular with developers and users alike. And in 2018, ten years after it was first released, two-thirds of personal computer users surfed the web with Chrome. Firefox hung on with roughly ten percent. And the mighty Microsoft had fallen to a mere five, losing what came to be known as the second browser war. It's yet another story of how rapidly technology is changing and how quickly giants can rise, stumble, and even fall.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Statistics regarding web browser market share are somewhat conflicting and are complicated by the question of whether to include mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets. Here the focus has been specifically on desktop/personal computers, and the market share figures have been taken from the references listed below.

Global Market Share Held by Leading Desktop Internet Browsers from January 2015 to May 2018. From the Statista website: Accessed July 31, 2018.

Nathan McAlone. "See How Chrome Beat Out Its Competitors to Become the Most Popular Browser in the World." Business Insider, July 14, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2018.

"The Second Browser War." The Economist, September 4, 2008. See also: Accessed July 31, 2018.

Second Browser War. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed July 31, 2018.