My First Stab at Tech Punditry (Or: Internet Explorer Needs UI Skins to Compete with Netscape 6)

Back in 2012, old friends of mine such as Patrick O’Keefe, Brad Kelly, Ray Angel, and James Fintel somehow unearthed a copy of “XPreme Magazine.” It was, in essence, a tech blog distributed via .exe file (seriously).

I wrote an article for XPreme Magazine’s January 1, 2002 issue, originally entitled “Internet Explorer Over the Years”, which discussed a perceived slowdown in Internet Explorer development. It is remarkable in how prophetic it was while still being tremendously short-sighted.

With full permission (acquired in 2012, from which this draft is being updated), I have reprinted the article in its unedited glory. Enjoy.

Remember the browser wars of 1997 and 1998? Those were great times. Netscape and Microsoft were head-to-head, developing their respective fourth-generation browsers. “Push technology” and Web-integrated shells were the talk of the Web. Cascading Style Sheets were finding better support, and the Web would soon become more interactive with the introduction of Dynamic HTML.

When Internet Explorer 4.0 was finally released, the buzz of the Windows Desktop Update found its way around. Granted, the new shell on Windows 95 was very unstable. However, in my experiences with it, I found that it made Windows just easier to use. Not only did IE have that, it also contained a number of enhancements in the browser interface that just made browsing more pleasant.

When Internet Explorer 5.0 was released, some critics contended it was not a “major” release; however, its many enhancements to performance, usability, and stability spoke very loudly for just how important that release was. AutoComplete was a usability revolution, the extended implementation of Explorer bars, particularly in the area of search, and its customizable toolbar made IE 5.0 the tool of choice for surfing the Internet.

By about IE 5.0, the browser wars began fading out. Internet Explorer had left Netscape, with its sub-par stability and standards support, far behind. Microsoft knew it had accomplished this, and then Internet Explorer began slowing down in the innovation department.

Enter IE 5.5 a little more than a year later; the major upgrades were to CSS and some Dynamic HTML support. But nothing about that release screamed “groundbreaking” by any means; colored scrollbars and decreased stability were the most noticeable changes. The stability was fixed in service packs that followed. Granted, this was a minor point release; its lack of new features should have been expected.

But then Internet Explorer 6.0 headed to beta with still fewer enhancements besides finer controls over cookies and a “Personal Bar” – which, had it not been scrapped, would have been quite useful with a more elegant implementation than what was found in the beta. The Personal Bar eventually gave way to the Media Bar, which I for one rarely if ever use. Meanwhile, Netscape had released Netscape 6 – yes, a buggy product for sure, but some of its features are quite compelling. Skinning of the browser – as Netscape had achieved at least in part – certainly couldn’t be all that hard for Microsoft to achieve; they’ve proven they have the visual styles technologies to accomplish this via Windows Media Player and Windows XP. So why not let Internet Explorer users – most notably, those on platforms other than Windows XP – change from the drab interface that we’ve seen since IE 4.0? A visually-pleasing browsing experience would be great, and certainly shouldn’t be too taxing on the platforms Microsoft are now primarily supporting.

Let’s hope Internet Explorer 7.0 brings along something more than an obscure tweak or setting, and gives the consumer something to cheer about, like in the days of the browser wars – otherwise, I’m sure I won’t be the only one to think that the IE team has relaxed its development of the browser now that it has a stranglehold on the market.

By Jared Smith

Jared Smith is a web developer and weather enthusiast living in Charleston, SC.