The End of Internet Explorer?

For those who thought the Browser Wars were interesting, or for those who like reasons to complain about Microsoft, or for those who think the government sold out in the Microsoft settlement, ZDnet has an interesting story alleging that MS plans to stop offering Internet Explorer as a stand-alone browser. The business logic for this is straightforward: 95% of web sites work on any browser, but around 5%, including some important sites, do not. I strongly prefer Opera, but I am forced to use IE when I post on Blogger, visit Matt Yglesias’ blog, or do my online banking. If these glitches continue into the next generation of IE, then everyone will have to upgrade to the latest generation of Windows to get the latest browser, and Linux users will be out of luck. It’s a beautiful circle for Microsoft: a near-monopoly in the operating system market allows them to attain a near-monopoly in the browser market, allowing MS to reinforce its position in the OS market.

You could lose a lot of money betting against Microsoft’s execution of strategies like these (exception: MSN), but in this case, I’m not sure it will work. There is a substantial installed base of older machines that lack the hard drive space and RAM to run Windows XP, much less the next generation of Windows (codenamed “Longhorn”). A quick check of the stats for this blog shows that, in the non-random sample of Angry Bear readers, exactly 2/3 of my visitors are on Windows 2000 or XP. 15% are on Mac/Unix/Linux (which is how I know the sample is non-random). Online businesses simply cannot afford to cut off 15% to 33% of the market from full functionality on their sites, and so will have to update their server-side code to be robust to Opera, Netscape, and non-IE browsers. I basically agree with Jon von Tetzchner, chief executive of Opera:

“My take is that not distributing IE without Windows is good news for us. This means that a lot of companies are left with the choice between using Opera and paying Microsoft a hefty fee for a Windows upgrade that (makes obsolete) their computers. In the current market, many companies are trying to cut their costs, and a lot of them have no compelling reason to upgrade Windows.”

Why is all of this even an issue? The internet was built around the idea of open standards (e.g., any OS with any Browser would work with any website, because they would all be speaking the same language), whereas Microsoft is built around closed and proprietary standards (only MS browsers, Windows, and websites running MS servers work well together). When MS successfully crushed Netscape, the internet took a big step towards closed standards, though it still remains by and large open–for the time being. Larry Lessig’s blog and his book, The Future of Ideas, are pretty good on general open vs. closed intellectual property issues.

AB

P.S. As long as I’m being nerdy today, it looks like the inventors of Palm, who eventually left under unpleasant circumstances and founded Handspring, have come full circle.