Bill's browser blunder begets botched blame

It's too easy to take potshots at Microsoft for IE, especially in hindsight. But the browser was definitely not Microsoft's greatest blunder, as columnist John C. Dvorak would have it. No, the problem was not with the idea, but in the implementation, and in the timid way they try to fix it.

Internet Explorer
PC Magazine columnist John C. Dvorak calls Internet Explorer "the Great Microsoft Blunder", writing:

Microsoft's entry into the browser business and its subsequent linking of the browser into the Windows operating system looks to be the worst decision—and perhaps the biggest, most costly gaffe—the company ever made.

Sorry John, but it's easy to knock Microsoft and Bill Gates for this. Too easy. We've all been the victim of years of viruses, critical security updates, etc. all caused to a large degree by Internet Explorer. But I think this is an overly simplistic view. Why?

The problem is not with the idea, it's with the implementation.

First off, let me point out that I'm not an IE apologist by any stretch of the imagination. While I used to use IE around the version 4 era, I currently avoid IE whenever I can. Right now I'm using Firefox, because of all the problems in IE and all the nice extensions you can add to Firefox.

But it was a good idea for Microsoft to get into the browser business, and it was a good idea to bundle IE with Windows. Because of what they did, everyone and his mother could take advantage of the Internet, and the Web took off like it never could have otherwise. Bundling let the OS and other applications use the browser technology in key features like on-line help. IE common controls found their way into many different programs too. The Internet was key, let me say again, key to Microsoft's strategic interests, and even Joel agrees you don't outsource your core business functions.

But wow, what a disaster implementation wise. John continues:

If the problem is not weird legal cases against the company, then it's the incredible losses in productivity at the company from the never-ending battle against spyware, viruses, and other security problems. All the work that has to go into keeping the browser afloat is time that could have been better spent on making Vista work as first advertised.

No arguments there. But it didn't have to be that way. They made some bad decisions early on, like lax default security settings. But really, who could have predicted the massive attacks that came later? The net was a much friendlier place at the time. I guess we were all a bit naive about it, looking back.

The next thing you know, Microsoft went Internet slaphappy. Besides cobbling together a browser from any code it could license, it rolled out all sorts of Internet magazines and various Internet-centric ideas to the point where it was obvious to anyone watching that the company itself was believing all the hype coming from outside.

If it were anybody but Microsoft, John would be praising them for being "agile" and "turning the battleship around". Remember, this was the back when BBS's, dialup, and a closed AOL were the norm. The Web and the free Internet were radical ideas, so let's give MS some credit for recognizing that. They also gave Java a much needed boost, before all the brouhaha with Sun. As I remember, their stock wasn't exactly suffering during this period either.

No, I fault them for, after the first version or two, not scrapping the whole thing and starting over from scratch. Maybe even writing it in their brand new (at the time) .NET system. Instead, they patch and patch and patch. IE7 is more of the same; just read the blogs about the gyrations they had to go through to hack in tabbed browsing. John's suggestion to fix all this?

Microsoft should pull the browser out of the OS and discontinue all IE development immediately. It should then bless the folks with a cash endowment and take an investment stake in Opera, to influence the future direction of browser technology from the outside in.

Riiiight. The Internet is still strategic for Microsoft, more so now than before. So my advice is to start over from scratch. Design a new browser and don't use one line of code from any existing browser. Port it everywhere and try to displace all the competition. By all means, make it open source so it can be scrutinized and audited. And for gosh sakes, pay people for finding holes in it. A whole cottage industry could grow up around improving the browser, and it's far, far cheaper than waiting for attacks to come in from the wild after release.

What do you think, was IE a total blunder or flawed genius?


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