Microsofts Internet Explorer turns 10 on Wednesday. Thats 10 years, not the version number, which is just now approaching 7. While its arguably the most important piece of software to hit user desktops during the decade, its arrival has been a mixed blessing. Some may consider it a curse.
Internet Explorer has influenced Windows to some extent and even changed the way we connect to our data files. At the same time, its also paved the way for plenty of problems on the security front.
Sure, Netscape and Mosaic came first. But which browser are you using to read this column? Most likely its Internet Explorer.
Nevertheless, the era should be called the “Browser Decade” and not for IE. For if Mosaic hadnt changed the world, how long it would have taken Microsoft to do a browser of its own.
Lets consider an alternate history, one in which the NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications) in Urbana-Champaign never invented its Mosaic browser.
Microsoft was a relative late arrival to the Internet after all, working as it was on getting Windows 95 out the door. If Netscape, son of Mosaic, hadnt been going gangbusters, would Microsoft have produced IE when it did? Probably not.
And if IE had been delayed, might it have ended up a better piece of software?
Id like to think so. But, while IE has been a huge success, its also caused more problems than any piece of software that wasnt an operating system. Since Microsoft has variously alleged that IE is part of the OS, the distinction may actually be moot.
Certainly, Internet Explorer could top the list as the least-secure major piece of software released in the last decade. Theres no standards group measuring such things as far as I know, so Im giving it top “honors” by guesstimate. But, its fair to say IE has done more than its share to enable various Internet rip-offs, like phishing, and to enable Internet annoyances, like pop-up advertising.
On this front, it might be kind to say that IE was introduced in a simpler, more-naïve time. But you can also say Microsoft has been painfully slow to make the Internet a secure place for its customers. Thats what next years Internet Explorer 7 is supposed to be about, but Ill reserve judgment until the bad guys have had their shot at it.
Predictions that the browser would become the universal interface, a desktop UI version of Esperanto, have fallen short. And the longer it goes, the less likely it is to happen. Sure, the browser metaphor has changed how we look at the file system, but that will change again as Microsoft and Apple move to a search-based file system (in Windows Vista and OS X Tiger, respectively).
Browsers have not impacted the look-and-feel of applications nearly as much as they have the file system. This transformation was supposed to happen in two ways: Web-based applications and Java. The first is still a work in progress, while Java has probably been the underachiever of the decade.
Next Page: Goodbye Windows—not!
Remember back when people spoke of Java as a “write once, run everywhere” environment sitting atop the operating system—any operating system? Java would, according to some, become more important than Windows. Java was supposed to run “the applications of the future” atop whatever OS the user chose.
“Goodbye Windows!” Java proponents used to say, with more than a measure of gleeful malice in their voices.
What a laugh all that turned out to be. Yes, Java has become a significant programming language, but Java-based applications are in no danger of taking over anybodys desktop. Not anybody I know, anyway.
Web-based applications have been less successful than Java, at least in terms of overall visibility, but may have a better future. Sure, they should have been here in a big way three or four years ago, but Web-based apps continue to make steady, if slow, progress. Salesforce.com has demonstrated that if you build a great Web-based app, customers will come.
So why make a big deal about the Browser Decade? Because flawed as it was and remains, the World Wide Web and the browsers that reveal it have done more to improve the global flow of information than anything since the invention of the printing press. We have Google, Amazon, blogs, podcasts, online libraries, some Web-based apps and millions of other sites all available at the click of a mouse, courtesy of browser software.
That the software hasnt lived up to its full potential isnt surprising. That its not, even today, as secure as it ought to be, is reason to be unhappy. But, for all the things the browser isnt, the software has changed our world, and mostly for the better.
So, with an appreciative nod to Mosaic, Netscape Navigator and all the other browsers, past and present, I say, “Happy Birthday, Internet Explorer!” Its been an exciting 10 years. I just hope were not having the same problems 10 years from now.
Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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