Is Microsoft Launching a New Browser War?

Microsoft's attempts to steer Windows users toward the Edge browser are attracting notice. Can the Third Browser War around the corner?
Marcia Wendorf

Users of Microsoft's Windows 10 and 11 operating systems have recently reported seeing unusual prompts when they attempt to download Google's Chrome browser to their device, according to The Verge.

The prompts reportedly say: "Microsoft Edge runs on the same technology as Chrome, with the added trust of Microsoft." "That browser is so 2008! Do you know what’s new? Microsoft Edge." "‘I hate saving money,’ said no one ever. Microsoft Edge is the best browser for online shopping."

Is Microsoft Launching a New Browser War?
"Meet Edge" popupSource: Neal Jennings/Twitter

According to 9to5google, during a Windows operating system update in the Summer of 2020, Microsoft users were faced with a full-screen pop-up message that "introduced" them to the new Microsoft Edge browser. It prompted users to import their data from other browsers, and it pinned Edge to the first slot of users' taskbars and placed the Edge icon on their desktops.

To add insult to injury, Microsoft next erased users' default browser settings and displayed a prompt asking them to make Edge their default browser.

Is Microsoft Launching a New Browser War?
Default browser popupSource: Marcia Wendorf

In September 2018, The Verge reported that testers of the Windows 10 October 2018 Update reported seeing a prompt stating, "You already have Microsoft Edge — the safer, faster browser for Windows 10." When asked about the prompt, Microsoft told the publication that it was merely testing the prompt, and that it wouldn't appear in the final update, adding, however, that it might appear in future Windows 10 updates.

In its Start Menu search results, Microsoft has been forcing Windows 10 and Windows 11 users to use the Edge browser and Microsoft's Bing search engine, failing to respect users' default browser and search engine choices. Microsoft has reportedly even taken steps to block apps, such as EdgeDeflector, which redirects users back to their original browser and search engine choices.

A Microsoft spokesperson told The Verge that Windows "... offers certain end-to-end customer experiences in both Windows 10 and Windows 11, the search experience from the taskbar is one such example of an end-to-end experience that is not designed to be redirected." In reply, Daniel Aleksandersen of EdgeDeflector told the publication that, "Microsoft isn’t a good steward of the Windows operating system. They’re prioritizing ads, bundleware, and service subscriptions over their users' productivity."

This isn't the first time Microsoft has tried to influence what browser its operating system customers use. If you're older than about 40, then you probably remember them, but if you're younger, welcome to "The Browser Wars".

The First Browser War

In December 1993, Marc Andreessen graduated with a degree in computer science from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. There, he had worked at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and saw Tim Berners-Lee's open standards for the World Wide Web.

Andreessen and co-worker Eric Bina set to work creating a web browser that would have integrated graphics and that would work on a variety of computers. The result was the Mosaic Web browser, and after Andreessen hooked up with Jim Clark, the founder of hardware firm Silicon Graphics, together they formed Netscape Communications. From there, the Netscape Navigator browser was born.

Netscape Navigator was provided for free to non-commercial users, and by 1995, it was installed on almost all machines that were accessing the World Wide Web. Navigator featured broad image support, as well as cookies. These are small files, often including unique identifiers, that web servers send to browsers and are used to store a user's preferences, custom fonts, background colors, and embedded media. By version 2.0 released in August 1995, Navigator included HTML frames, which allow one web page to sit within another, clickable image maps, and the first appearance of Javascript. HTML, which stands for Hypertext Markup Language, is the code that underlies all pages on the World Wide Web.

By the middle of 1995, Netscape had 80 percent of the browser market, Jim Clark took the company public and Marc Andreessen landed on the cover of Time magazine. But, when Andreessen started making noises about Netscape moving into the operating system arena, that's when Microsoft CEO Bill Gates took notice.

In May of 1995, Gates sent a memo to all Microsoft employees exhorting them to "match and beat" Netscape. Next, Microsoft engineers paid a visit to Netscape. According to Microsoft, their purpose was to gather information as they planned Microsoft's future, and that during the meeting, the two companies shared ideas and visions for the future.

According to Netscape, and as contained in Marc Andreessen’s notes taken at the time, Microsoft's engineers came to them with an ultimatum: Provide Microsoft with their browser code base for a small fee or else Microsoft would eliminate them from the market. When Netscape refused to provide its codebase, Microsoft did just that.

Microsoft proceeded to license browser code from Mosaic, and it created Internet Explorer 1.0, which it released in August 1995, just 15 days after Netscape's IPO. On December 7, 1995, not coincidentally the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Bill Gates announced the release of Internet Explorer 2.0, which the company was providing free to commercial users as well as home users.

Over the next couple of years, the two browsers competed with features, and it was not uncommon to see a minor release of each browser every month. HTML features would often be rendered completely differently by the two browsers, and it became common to see the words, "Best displayed on Netscape" or "Best displayed on Internet Explorer" on various websites.

While Netscape waged the first Browser War with new features, such as tables and auto-filling of forms, Microsoft gave Internet Explorer away for free to PC manufacturers and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). But, it was with the release of the Windows '95 operating system in which Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer that the company drew blood.

In October 1997, Microsoft's San Francisco release party for Internet Explorer 4.0 featured a ten-foot-tall version of the app's letter "e" logo. Imagine the surprise of Netscape employees when they arrived at work the next morning only to find the "e" on their front lawn along with a sign that read, "From the IE team ...We Love You."

The Netscape employees promptly knocked the "e" over and sat a giant version of their Mozilla dinosaur mascot atop it along with a sign reading, "Netscape 72, Microsoft 18," which represented the two browsers' percentage of the market share at that time.

While Netscape might have been ahead, Internet Explorer 4 had an edge (no pun intended), because it was integrated into every Microsoft Windows installation, and it could be provided free, supported by Microsoft's vast resources from its operating system sales. In 1998, Netscape open-sourced their browser, and began giving it away for free. But by the end of 1998, Microsoft had 50 percent of the browser market, and by 1999, it had almost 80 percent.

By 2001, Internet Explorer was used by a whopping 96 percent of web browser users, and the victor of the first Browser War had surely been crowned. However, the U.S. government took notice, and it brought a case against Microsoft for violating antitrust laws. The basis of the Department of Justice's case was that by giving away their browser for free, and bundling it into their operating system, Microsoft forced consumers to use their product, and pushed competitors out of the market. That was along with pressure that Microsoft put on manufacturers to include Internet Explorer on their platforms.

Microsoft argued that Internet Explorer was integral to their operating system. In 2000, the presiding judge issued his findings of fact, which stated that Microsoft was abusing a monopoly position. The judge's decision was eventually overturned by an appeals court.

As they had raised the white flag, Netscape, which was sold to AOL in 1998 for $4.2 billion, gave the profits from their now open-sourced browser code to the non-profit Mozilla Foundation. For several years, community volunteers worked on the code, until November 9, 2004, when the Firefox 1.0 browser first appeared.

A need for standards

At the time, there was an extreme need for cross-platform browser standards, and WHATWG, a standards working group, was created. The need for standards was made manifest by the peculiar behavior of Internet Explorer 6. Internet Explorer Versions 6, 7, and 8 were known as the "problem children" of browsers because they didn't interpret HTML5 tags or CSS3 statements correctly. If a developer failed to include a "DOCTYPE" declaration in their HTML code, IE8 would go into "quirks" mode, in which it tried to replicate the look of IE5. IE8 could also pretend to be IE7 if a user clicked a "compatibility view" button, which caused Microsoft to place the website onto its Compatibility View List. This was a list of websites that Microsoft determined looked better in IE7 than in IE8. Thankfully, IE9 eliminated all of these problems.

Also in 2005, the commercial browser Opera became freeware and attracted users. On June 20, 2006, Opera 9 was released, and it became the first Windows browser to pass the Acid2 test, one of the Acid Tests which tasked browsers with correctly displaying HTML markup, Cascading Stylesheet (CSS) styling, PNG images, and data Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs). Microsoft struggled to make Internet Explorer standards complaint, and its IE8 scored only 20 points out of a possible 100 in the Acid3 test, the worst of all major browsers at that time.

In June 2003, Microsoft had announced that it was discontinuing Internet Explorer on Apple's Mac computers. Apple was already designing a browser layout engine of its own that became known as WebKit. It was incorporated into Apple's Safari browser which first shipped with Mac OS X v10.3 in October 2003. Then, on April 29, 2010, Apple's CEO Steve Jobs blew the lid off the browser world with an open letter in which he disavowed Apple's support for Adobe Flash on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Adobe Flash was used for much of the animation, games, and embedded video on the web. Jobs cited Flash's high energy consumption, frequent crashes, poor performance on mobile devices, lack of touch support, and abysmal security. By 2010, the advent of the HTML5 and CSS3 specifications proved Jobs right, especially for mobile web browsers.

In September 2008, Google released the Chrome browser for Microsoft Windows, and shortly thereafter for Mac OS X and Linux platforms. Chrome used the same WebKit rendering engine as Safari, and it had a faster Javascript engine. By the end of 2011, Chrome overtook Firefox to become the world's most used browser.

The Second Browser War

In 2015, with the release of Windows 10, Microsoft threw in the towel on Internet Explorer and shifted to the Edge browser. However, Edge failed to gain much traction against Chrome which had over 60 percent of the browser market worldwide. In May 2017, former Mozilla CTO Andreas Gal stated that Google Chrome had won The Second Browser War.

In December 2018, Microsoft announced that it would create a new version of Edge based on Chrome and powered by Google's rendering engine. In April 2019, Chrome's share of worldwide web browsers reached around 70 percent of personal computers, and over 60 percent of all devices. On January 15, 2020, Microsoft released its newest version of Edge, and in June 2021, it permanently discontinued Internet Explorer.

The Third Browser War

If Microsoft is indeed launching a third Browser War, can the mid-1990s be far behind? Men, put on your flat-front chinos or straight-leg jeans, women, put on a mini-skirt and knee socks, pop a disc with "The Macarena" into your car's sound system, and head for the mall. There, Toy Story or Braveheart is playing, and you can stop by Starbucks for their new frozen Frappuccino.

If you're lucky enough to have a home computer, a new company called eBay is selling Pez dispensers, and another new company named Amazon has just sold its first book: Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought by Douglas Hofstadter. 

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