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Saturday 17 August 2019
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Microsoft at the Edge

THE browser wars have been going on since the World Wide Web was opened up to the world. The first web browser was Mosaic, basically a proof-of-concept app created to show how HTML code could be turned into a readable page.

It was soon overtaken by a commercial project, Netscape Navigator, which began the process of turning a web browser into an ecosystem of code interpretation, generation and communication. But that wasn’t really a war, it was the rapid evolution of the concept of a web browser. The first browser war didn’t formally begin until Microsoft introduced Internet Explorer (IE) in 1995, a product that was simply a rewrite of the Mosaic browser at the start.

Netscape started with 80 per cent of the browser market, but Microsoft had 90 per cent of the operating-system market, and the decisive blow came when IE came bundled with Windows, a move that led to years of cross-examination in the court system.

This battle continued for years, and in those early days of the Internet, code wasn’t sufficiently formalised and universal, and wild divergences led web designers to create pages optimised and labelled to look best on either Netscape or IE. Yes, that was a thing, back in the day.

This all seems silly today, in an age in which the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has successfully created code-interpretation standards which all browsers are supposed to honour.

The Mozilla Foundation and its product, Firefox are the descendants of Netscape, which open-sourced its code when it finally collapsed.

In December, Microsoft announced that Edge, the web browser it created to replace IE, would drop its spanking new rendering engine components, Chakra and EdgeHTML, for Blink, the Chromium-based engine used by Google Chrome and other browsers. This reduces to three the widely used rendering engines for the web that users can choose from: Mozilla’s Gecko, Google’s Blink and Apple’s WebKit.

Blink and Webkit share development genes, and WebKit’s outsized reach is the result of Apple’s insistence on that browser engine for any web browser on its mobile devices. It also makes it easier for Microsoft to create versions of Edge for earlier versions of Windows and other platforms. Edge did not run on Windows 7 or earlier, leaving those users with either the choice of either the publicly disparaged IE or another browser

In an era in which browser wars are largely an historical footnote, Microsoft’s problems with Edge turn out to be largely of its own creation.

In 2016, Microsoft held to its promise to drop support for earlier versions of IE, which, to be frank, were an annoyance to web developers because of long-term, spotty support for developing web technologies and coding systems. A startling 22 per cent of IE users simply switched browsers, according to NetTally. In 2017, 35 per cent of those who remained also switched.

On December 2018, according to StatCounter, Chrome had 62.3 per cent of overall browser share, compared to Edge’s two per cent.

In some ways, it’s an ignominious end to a web browser project that ended in such fierce rivalry, but it’s appropriate to the Microsoft of 2019, a very different one from the company that struggled to find its place on the Internet in the 1990s.

Microsoft 2019 is all about collaboration and synergy. Why expend effort on a rendering engine when there are perfectly good ones available that are well supported? That’s not a question that would have ever come up in the Microsoft of 1995 or even 2005, but it’s a different Internet and clearly, a different Microsoft.

Mark Lyndersay is the editor of technewstt.com. An expanded version of this column can be found there.

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