Microsoft bids farewell to Internet Explorer

After twenty years of active service, IE is finally ready for retirement

Microsoft have called time on Internet Explorer – a browser that has been colourfully described as “besieged”, “beleaguered” and “embattled”, but which nobody can doubt is instantly recognisable as a feature of digital life. Internet Explorer was launched in 1995, back when texts still cost 10p and your phone could only store ten of them, and after twenty years of active service, Microsoft are ready for its retirement.

The Age of Exploration

Internet Explorer, or IE as it came to be known, is an icon of the early days of the world-wide web, when it really did feel like there was an astonishing amount to explore. Back when Creo started out, IE was the place to be, but in recent years it’s suffered a significant decline in use. Since the launch of Firefox and Chrome, and the popularity of Apple leading to the rise of Safari, Internet Explorer has been fading into the background.

Once, 90% of web experiences were browsed in IE, but these days it’s hardly half of them. It gets just 2% of all visits from mobile users, and mobile is widely considered to be the future of browsing. But though it’s decried for its ponderousness, over-complicated functions and the fact that it’s prone to crashing at the most inconvenient times, IE is still the way that millions upon millions of people set sail on the seas of the world-wide web. It might not be the critic’s choice of browsers, but historically it’s definitely got the popular vote.

But now, Microsoft are calling time on the old ways. At their Convergence event early in 2015, Microsoft’s head of marketing, Chris Capossela, announced that Windows 10 will be released with an entirely new browser that’s still currently in development. “We’ll continue to have Internet Explorer,” Capossela said, but it seems that most of their focus lies elsewhere: “We’re now researching what the new brand, or the new name, for our browser should be in Windows 10.”

And in terms of names, they seem to be thinking of something a little more aspirational. They’ve admitted that they “still have to name the thing”, but have released its codename, “Project Spartan” – which is a telling title indeed.

This is Sparta

“Spartan”, meaning sparse, stripped-down military efficiency, is a term brought to us from Ancient Greece (via comics, a blockbuster and a thousand fancy dress parties). The Spartans trained constantly because they were determined to be the finest soldiers in the world. The fact that two and a half thousand years later their name survives as a synonym for “ruthless” should tell you just how effective they were.

“Project Spartan” is codename that’s working very hard to sidestep the reputation that IE accrued over the years for being slow, outdated and unreliable. Spartan, Microsoft say, will be “fast, compatible and built for the modern web”, working with historic IE technologies to render old sites, and keeping its new rendering engine up-to-date. In their own words, they want it to be “truly evergreen” – another move away from IE, which is notorious for how quickly it becomes outdated.

But for all their enthusiasm for the new browser, Microsoft aren’t letting go of IE entirely just yet. In some ways, they can’t: it was so successful in its day that there are some technologies that are designed only for Internet Explorer. So traditionalists (and public-sector organisations!), don’t worry: IE will come loaded onto Windows 10 machines. But since IE and the new browser will use the same technology to read and render websites, it seems likely that Explorer will be phased out in terms of its sleeker, Spartan sibling.

It’s not clear yet whether Spartan will run on other operating systems than Windows 10, but Microsoft have confirmed that it be the default browser on all Windows devices, hopefully helping Microsoft claim a little more of the mobile market.

So farewell, Internet Explorer. With its passing, a twenty-year era is coming to an end. Considering how quickly technology changes these days, two decades is an extremely impressive tenure for any piece of digital tech. But times change, and whatever the final product is, Project Spartan seems to indicate that Microsoft are heading in the right direction. They’ve been inviting developers to workshops order to discuss its functions, offering technical previews of Windows 10 for phones, and this week they’ve opened registration for the hotly-anticipated “Project Spartan Web Summit”, and we’re all keen to see what news of that will be.

Now they just need to let it know what the browser’s going to be called – and whether it’ll be compatible with our Ancient Greek jokes about Trojans.

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