Internet Explorer soon will be a thing of the past. Starting today, Microsoft will stop supporting Internet Explorer versions 7, 8, 9 and 10 on most operating systems, its biggest step yet toward phasing out one of the most contentious pieces of software ever written.
Microsoft has been distancing itself from the Internet Explorer brand since March, when it launched the Microsoft Edge browser, but it isn’t quite dead. Edge runs only on Windows 10, so Redmond will continue backing a few versions of Internet Explorer on older operating systems it still supports. But it’s still a big departure. Historically, Microsoft has kept several versions of Internet Explorer current each supported version of Windows. Starting today, it will support only the latest version of IE that an operating system can run. It will not create new security patches for the older versions, leaving anyone who doesn’t upgrade vulnerable to new hacks or attacks.
That could be a huge hassle for organizations that use custom-built applications that run correctly only on older browsers. But it could be a boon to web developers and designers still trying to find ways to make websites good on older browsers. Newer web browser still have their quirks, and sites might look different from one browser to the next. But these differences are small compared to how Internet Explorer mangled web pages in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
By insisting on following its own path with IE rather than follow generally accepted standards, Microsoft dictated web design by years. That probably drove many aspiring web developers careers that didn’t require trying to figure out why the margins between images looked different from one browser to another. Keeping too many old browsers in circulation contributed to that mess. Thankfully, the time has come to move on.
The Bad Old Days
Because Internet Explorer didn’t stick to the guidelines established by World Wide Web Consortium the organization that establishes standards for web technologies, it often would display web pages in ways that made them look entirely different from other browsers, such as Netscape, Opera or, later, Firefox. Desperate designers cobbled together ways of making sites work across multiple browsers, but a complex layout sometimes required numerous workarounds. And Internet Explorer 6 was notorious for security vulnerabilities that Microsoft was sometimes slow to patch.
But if it was so bad, why was it so widely used? Most people blame Microsoft’s practice of pre-installing Internet Explorer with Windows starting in 1997, which contributed to a lengthy antitrust suit. Since many users didn’t know other browsers existed and PC vendors had bulk licensing agreements that prevented them from selling computers with alternates pre-installed, Microsoft effectively muscled out the competition.
But that’s not the whole story. Microsoft still bundles Internet Explorer with Windows, yet by most measures it has fallen behind Google Chrome as the world’s most widely used browser. That’s in part because designers and developers have spent years encouraging users to download alternative browsers. But in the late 1990s, countless sites proudly displayed “best viewed on Internet Explorer” banners.
That’s an exaggeration. Netscape 6 and Opera 5, both of which were excellent, arrived before Internet Explorer 6. But it’s true that Internet Explorer was ahead of the curve for a few years. Netscape users had to wait three years between the release of Netscape Navigator 4 in 1997 and Netscape Navigator 6 in 2000 (the company ended up skipping Navigator 5 in order to completely rewrite the software). Meanwhile, though Internet Explorer wasn’t very standards compliant, it was quick to add new features in the late 1990s. Developers who wanted to take advantage of cutting edge design and interactivity features had little choice but to use Internet Explorer and encourage their users to do so as well.