Column : Microsoft begins to lose the lead

Written by Anand Ramachandran | Updated: May 8 2010, 19:22pm hrs
Its no secret that Internet Explorers (IEs) share of the browser market has been declining steadily for years, but when it dropped by over 10% in the past 10 months to below 60% for the first time in its history, everybody took notice. While IE remains the single most used browser in the world, most experts believe that this is not a lead that it can maintain for long.

This wake-up call gives us an opportunity to glance into the past and attempt to examine the nature of this leadership. Interestingly, IE has never been the browser of choice for the knowledgeable user at any point in its history, even on the Windows platform. In the early days, the geeks preferred Netscape Navigator. Later, they switched allegiance to Opera and eventually Firefox and Chrome. In fact, Microsoft was a reasonably late entrant into the Internet age. Bill Gates once famously said that it was Microsofts fifth or sixth priority. As a result of this unfortunate lack of vision on their part, by the time IE was introduced in 1995, Netscapes Navigator browser was already firmly ensconced in the saddle as the leading Web browser. It took another three years before IE supplanted Netscape as the number one primary browser, and this was more due to Microsofts muscle than any great advantage in terms of product quality or features. Microsoft simply made IE the default browser on all its operating systems and bullied OEMs to stop them from including any other browser on their Windows PCs. This coincided with a tremendous growth period for worldwide PC sales, and as a result, millions of newbie users were using IE as their browser by simple default, giving it a staggering market share of 94% by 2004. However, that was as good as it was going to get, for a number of things were brewing.

As monopolies often do, this had the unfortunate effect of virtually ensuring that Microsoft didnt really bother putting out a good product. IE was famously buggy, had numerous security flaws and vulnerabilities, and was a system resource hog. And, when you think about it, Microsoft had to work really hard to push a product that was completely free. It was so bad; they couldnt even give it away.

In 2004, Mozilla released Firefox and geekdom embraced it with open arms. Here was a faster, safer and more efficient browser. It was extensible, customisable and ridiculously cool. It improved the Internet experience by leaps and boundsit was like getting behind the wheel of a sports car after a long drive in a Jalopy. A small but growing number of users began ditching IE in favour of Firefox. Importantly, these users were mostly influential onesopinion makers in the online world. Thanks to the growth of the social Internet, their voices began travelling farther and wider, and many people began to realise that they had a choice. Googles Chrome browser, released in 2008, rode this wave to gain a near 10% market share in less than two years. Chrome was even faster and sleeker than Firefox, but Firefox had better features and extensions. Suddenly, these new kids on the block were fighting each other, and IE was no longer even in the picture. The Internet was all Chrome vs Firefox, and IE only featured as an afterthought, if at all.

Add to this the growth of the Mac OS and Linux platforms (on both of which IE is persona non grata), and the writing was on the wall for Microsoft. Earlier this year, courts in the European Union dealt a further blow to IE by ruling that Microsoft would have to present windows users with a choice of browsers to install when they install the Windows OS. This meant that Microsoft could no longer rely on its by default tactic to ensure that consumers would use their browser.

Ironically, Microsoft did eventually improve IE. Versions 7 and 8 appear to have fixed a number of security issues and indeed offer a far better experience when compared to previous iterations. Several surveys have even rated IE 8 superior to Chrome and Firefox in some aspects. However, the damage was already done. IE was the uncool browser. The Internet elite mocked you as a n00b if you were seen using it. Game over.

The fall of IE is a telling lesson for people who make software products in our day and ageits becoming increasingly difficult to force bad products down peoples throats. The consumer is better informed, the competition is always ready with an alternative and there are no second chances.

The author is game designer and gaming journalist based in Mumbai