The end of Explorer

In an obituary Mac users have seen coming since 2003, Microsoft announced the end of the line for the Mac version of its Internet Explorer browser Monday. The software giant will drop all support for IE on December 31, providing no further security or performance updates.

IE’s Mac demise comes as no surprise to us, and not just because Microsoft stopped development of the browser a little more than two years ago. Fewer than 3 percent of the readers who come to Macworld.com are doing so via Internet Explorer for the Mac—in contrast, roughly 50 percent of our visitors are using Apple’s Safari while Firefox and the Windows version of IE count for a little more than 20 percent each.

In a fitting footnote, Microsoft suggests on its Mactopia IE page that users should consider migrating to Apple’s Safari. Why is that interesting? Because Safari was developed as a single-platform browser, much like IE is now platform-specific for the PC.

Cross-platform vs. platform-specific is the core issue of Microsoft’s decision.

A lot of ink has been spent on praising Firefox for cutting into IE’s domination. But Firefox has a distinct advantage: It’s an open-source browser that can run naturally on all platforms. IE doesn’t have that luxury. And as we all know, Microsoft isn’t keen on competing in a cross-platform environment. So Redmond finally realized that any resources poured into Mac development would be unlikely to make a difference. Safari already has the dominant chunk of the Mac market cornered, relegating Microsoft to competing for table scraps.

Factor in the disdain which many Mac users feel for anything Windows-related, and it was a no-win situation for IE. When Safari debuted at the 2003 Macworld Expo in San Francisco, many Mac users downloaded the Apple-built browser and never looked back.

Anyone who’s used IE on a Mac knows that it is lacking in almost every category. Page rendering is horrible because of CSS issues, and it has no clear path for integrating new features. (Mind you, it can be done. Flock recently launched such an effort with a browser built upon Firefox that offers integration with Flickr, del.icio.us, and various blogging tools.) Rather than pouring more money down the Mac-development black hole, Gates & Co. decided justifiably to pull the plug.

I know most Mac users would argue that Microsoft wrote off the Mac IE back in 2003 when it announced updates would cease. Indeed, that announcement marked the turning point where IE moved toward PC-only. But notice that the announcement came just before Firefox was established as a viable threat. Safari, however, was already making Microsoft nervous. I would argue that this is when the development team took a look at their existing browser and decided it wasn’t viable for the Mac, nor was their much promise of becoming so.

So the model for browser development shapes up like this: Either pick a platform and stick with it or embrace open-source. Because competing for every little corner of both markets using proprietary technology requires so much money that even Microsoft can’t afford it.

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