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Internet Explorer had a long and important life, but it’s time to move on

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 7.48.33 PMAfter 20 years, it’s time to say goodbye to Internet Explorer. It’s been said that time is measured in dog years on the Internet, so based on that notion, Microsoft’s Web browser lived to a ripe old age.

The world has changed since Microsoft introduced Internet Explorer in 1995. Back then, the World Wide Web was in its infancy and browsers were — just as the name implied — mostly used to browse around. There were no web-based email apps, people didn’t use browsers for online banking, there was even a paucity of Web-based news sites.

Back then, most people who went online were still using dedicated services like Prodigy, CompuServe or AOL, and each of these services required their own proprietary software. AOL distributed millions of floppy disks with its software — so many, in fact, that I never had to buy floppies, I just reformatted the free ones from AOL.

And, of course, people weren’t using phones or tablets to surf the Web in 1995, though I was surprised to learn that a browser for the Apple Newton personal digital assistant, called PocketWeb, was launched in 1994.

IE was controversial from the day it was announced because, unlike its competition at the time, it was free. It was largely blamed for the demise of Netscape Navigator, the leading browser of its time, which led to concerns that Microsoft would forever dominate the browser market, especially when it bundled IE with Windows 95.

I remember having a conversation about this issue with Microsoft’s then-CEO, Bill Gates, at a trade show where he dismissed this notion. Gates was right — Just because Microsoft was giving away a browser for free didn’t mean that it would forever own that market.

Firefox, a free browser from the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, started eating into Microsoft’s market share shortly after it was introduced in 2005, and Google Chrome, which first appeared in 2008, is now very popular. There are conflicting studies on whether IE or Chrome is currently the leading browser, but, however you look at it, Microsoft’s market share is shrinking and it clearly no longer “owns” the browser market, even on Windows PCs.

Apple’s Safari, of course, dominates on iOS phones and tablets, while Google Chrome is the main browser for most Android devices. But browsers aren’t as important on mobile because many “sites” have their own app. Most news sites, for example, encourage readers to download their app even if it possible to view their content on a mobile browser. On my PC or Mac, I do my banking through my browser, but on my phone I use my bank’s app.

IE’s reputation as an insecure and sluggish browser lingers, even though it’s no longer true. Chrome’s success is largely because of its perceived speed and its minimalist design, but in a September 2014 roundup, PC Magazine crowned Firefox as the fastest and most memory-efficient browser. Even though IE came in third, the PC editors gave it a good review, saying “it’s so much faster, leaner, and more secure than previous versions that former users who left it behind may want to give it another try.”

But users rarely do go back and give maligned products another try. Like a lot of people, I was once an IE user, but after Firefox (and later Chrome) came along, I switched away and never switched back. As part of my research for this column, I did try the latest version of IE and have to agree that it’s a lot better than it once was, but I’m still not going back. I go back and forth between Mac, Windows, iOS and Android and want a browser (like Chrome and Firefox) that runs seamlessly on all those platforms.

So, if you can’t get people to take a second look at an improved product, another strategy is to kill off the name and replace it with something really new. And that’s what Microsoft is doing with a browser that’s been code-named Spartan.

As the name implies, Spartan promises to be lean and fast. It also will offer note taking and web page annotation and be optimized for reading content and getting out of the way, especially on smaller mobile devices. It will also be smarter with a personal-assistant feature, called Cortana, that will, for instance, automatically give you directions when you land on a restaurant’s webpage or bring up your flight reservation if you type in the airline name in the address bar.

Spartan is not yet in the technical preview of Windows 10 that I’ve been trying out, but it should be ready when Windows 10 is released, likely this summer. While Internet Explorer is being retired as a mainstream browser, it will still be available for large organizations that need it for continuity purposes for older websites, but most Windows users will be encouraged to use Spartan.