Internet Explorer 5: Little features trampled underfoot in the march of progress

While Safari is undoubtedly a better browser than Internet Explorer, there's one little feature worth mourning that died with IE 5. Just one little thing.

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Getting a vintage Mac to talk to the Internet at all can be something of a challenge, but even once you’ve wrestled the right cables from your special drawer of junk and battled valiantly with arcane TCP/IP control panels—pausing only to give decades-ago you a collegiate nod of respect for having ever figured this stuff out—you’re suddenly confronted with the sad truth that most of today’s web is functionally useless on old browsers. 

Ostensibly, of course, this shouldn’t be the case. The web is one of the most standardized things around—yes, I said it—and since HTML is a clear and robust agreed-on subset of these standards, in theory everything should be clean and accessible. 

And it would be, if every webpage was still a nice chunk of static HTML, built in Claris Home Page, with nothing jazzier than a two-frame animated GIF and liberal use of the <blink> tag, but it’s a long time since that’s what the WWW w-w-was. 

Load up Internet Explorer 5 today, and the default homepage on my system here in the U.K.,, just doesn’t load at all. Actually, that’s not quite true—delightfully, given the current brouhaha about advertising and page heft online, the one thing that does reliably work is the advertising frame prompting me to switch ISPs. 

ie5 01 Christopher Phin 

(Did you have a similar thing in the U.S.? Here, we were prompted to sign up to Demon even during the main OS setup assistant; it’s hard to imagine Apple letting a third party company so deep into its experience today.) 

Even though the pace with which new web standards are accepted is relatively slow, enough time has passed that few sites today will load gracefully in IE5. Even the venerable Low End Mac homepage, there in theory for vintage Mac users—that is, users of vintage Macs, although the other reading is just as likely to fit—doesn’t altogether work. 

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One site that does, mind you, is the promo site for the 1996 film Space Jam, whose story was told a few weeks ago on Rolling Stone

ie5 03 Christopher Phin

More likely, though, sites will either look messy and be hard to read, or will fail to load entirely—which is particularly true of sites that use the secure “https” rather than “http.” Old browsers just don’t support the modern standards, so no Gmail for you.

ie5 04 Christopher Phin
Christopher Phin 

Even if you do find a site that will load okay, you’ll wait an astonishing amount of time for it to appear. Of course, I remember sites taking an age to load back in the day, but I was on dialup then—now, I have a fiber broadband connection, so it’s clear it’s the browser itself (and the hardware it’s running on) that’s the bottleneck. When Safari was first introduced, I remember Apple making a big deal of how much faster it was, but in part because my bandwidth at the time was so constrained this never seemed particularly apparent, and thus not especially relevant to me. 

And besides, I had another reason to keep using Internet Explorer, and that brings me to the particular point of this week’s Think Retro. 

I am, genuinely, all for progress. I’m not cynical, I’m not curmudgeonly, I’m not world-weary. I instinctively twitch when someone calls it “progress” with heavy sarcasm quotes; taken in aggregate, I think we generally are making better products, being better citizens, and better nourishing our bodies and minds than preceding generations were. 

But while Safari is undoubtedly a better browser than Internet Explorer, and the fact that you can still access the Space Jam website with it notwithstanding, there’s just this one little feature I still miss. Just one little thing. When you selected Print Preview from the File menu, you got a window like this: 

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There are a few options there for controlling how the page prints—font size and cropping—so that you can get what you need fitting neatly onto however many sheets of paper you want—the view updated every time you changed the settings. There is, though, one other trick, and it’s this that I miss: You could grab the page inside its preview window and drag it up so that you could cut off a load of cruft at the top—usually branding and navigation stuff that you don’t need on your print. 

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Such a simple little thing, but one that not only led to neater prints, but must have saved some pretty impressive quantities of otherwise wasted toner, ink, and paper.

I’m not aggrieved that this ability died along with Internet Explorer 5. We gained a lot more, and it’s not like I feel I’m owed the feature or that Apple is engaged in a personal attack on me by omitting it. (Forum posters, please take note.) 

But dammit, I miss that little feature. It was smart and useful and showed a real understanding of what people need when they want to print a webpage. Safari’s Reader feature is useful too, but in a different way, and I find it quite wasteful when printing articles from the web.

So here’s an opportunity, in the comments below, to celebrate and remember these forgotten little features which have been trampled underfoot in the march of progress. We’re not talking major features here, or “gee, ClarisWorks was swell”—no, instead, I’d love to hear about the lovely touches in software from years gone by that yes, you’ve learned to live without, but which you’d love to see implemented again today.

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