How Internet Explorer supported free software

Internet Explorer, the nightmare of all web developers and many Internet users, the vendor lock-in application of the worst kind, has significantly contributed to the advancement of free software. How is it possible that such a product could help us?

When Internet Explorer appeared all the (at the time) modern and popular web browsers were proprietary products widely used by most people, including free software users. The leading web browser, Netscape, was another such product, distributed for free. That free beer was so popular that there was little demand for a free alternative and the presence and monopoly of Netscape effectively blocked development of a modern free web browser. That was a big problem: The Web, an emerging universal platform for information interchange, was here without any good free software to access it. It was ruled by a proprietary browser of unclear qualities, e.g. Netscape was suspected of leaking private information (BTW, the suspicion was probably false 20 years ago while the private information is routinely leaked these days through web sites and services; see IceCat for partial fixes). And then Internet Explorer started to grow and initiated the war of browsers.

It had taken some time before Netscape realized that their browser couldn’t compete against the universal desktop computer monopolist. At one time the numbers became more than clear and Netscape completely lost its market. It happens sometimes that companies finally, although quite late, recognize their mistakes and manage to help saving their works before they bankrupt (see Sun’s Java for another example). So did Netscape and the Mozilla project was founded. The project was successful, led to the development of Firefox and so we have a modern free and working web browser today. If Internet Explorer didn’t destroy Netscape market, the development of a competitive free web browser could be delayed by many more years.

So we can celebrate the end of Internet Explorer development twice: First for getting rid of the horror and second for helping us to get a good free web browser. It’s a good illustration how bad things can, contrary to their intentions, do something good. Turning bad things into making good is a very important general principle. This should be part of our strategy when making things better.

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