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Microsoft's IE steps back from the brink of irrelevance

Gregg Keizer | July 10, 2014
Microsoft has managed to reverse years of sometimes-sharp decline in Internet Explorer's user share and revive interest in the browser it bundles with Windows.

Microsoft has managed a feat seldom seen in — it's reversed years of sometimes-sharp decline in Internet Explorer's user share and revived interest in the browser it bundles with Windows.

Web analytics company Net Applications, which tracks browser use by monitoring unique visitors to customers' websites, said Internet Explorer (IE) ended June with a 58.5% user share, up 6.5 percentage points from its record low of December 2011.

That increase represented a 13% gain in IE's user share from the trough two and a half years ago.

It's unusual for an application to get a second chance after it's been in long decline, especially when the program has lost as much ground as did IE: At the start of 2005, nearly 9 out of every 10 online users ran IE.

But first Mozilla's Firefox, which debuted as version 1.0 in November 2004, then Google's Chrome, a rival that launched in September 2008, stole large chunks of user share from IE as Microsoft let development stagnate. IE flirted with ceding its majority position in December — at the time Computerworld rashly predicted that would happen within months — when it hit a low of 51.9%, but the browser stepped back from the brink.

Since IE's low point, Microsoft has released IE10 (in October 2012) and IE11 (October 2013). But it was March 2009's IE9, some believe, that made the turnaround possible. "IE9 was a superb browser and was only improved by IE10, essentially closing the gap with the fast-moving Chrome and Firefox efforts," said IDC analysts Al Hilwa in an interview 18 months ago.

More than 55% of those running IE used IE9, IE10 or IE11 in June.

IE had some tough years — 2008 and 2009, in particular, followed closely by 2011 — but unlike most software that has edged toward the grave, it recovered, if only by a fraction of what it had lost.

Most just-as-famous software couldn't duplicate that deed. Lotus 1-2-3, for example, was the premier business program in the mid-80s. But the spreadsheet fell into steady decline the next decade under assault from Microsoft's Excel, and didn't survive. Last year, IBM, which acquired Lotus in 1995, announced it was killing the brand, and would drop support of all Lotus-labeled products, including IBM Lotus 123 Millennium Edition V, in September 2014.

But IE regained about three percentage points in user share each of the years 2012 and 2013, and has added another half a point in the first half of 2014. The slower growth this year, on pace for a one percentage point increase, may indicate that IE's recovery is nearing an end.

The revival was on the desktop, where Windows, even as it's threatened by slumping PC sales and an onslaught of smartphones and tablets, remains king with a user share of 91.5%. When mobile is added to the mix, however, IE faces a more precarious future.


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