I've seen a number of interesting posts today in response to the news that Microsoft will end support for Internet Explorer for the Mac ths year. The best posts have been from people who used to work on the product.

Jorg Brown has a comment on Slashdot entitled I was on the MacIE 6 team when it got canned... which contains the following excerpt

MacIE had one of the strangest and saddest histories I've seen, of any product.

MacIE 5 was an awesome release, critically aclaimed and everything, with a good development team and a strong testing team, that included daily performance measurement.

And yet, almost immediately after 5.0 was released, the MacIE team was redeployed to work on a set-top DVR box. The notion at the time was that the team would continue to do MacIE work in their spare time, since IE 5 was the leader among Mac browsers and no longer needed a full-time team.

The problem with that notion was that WebTV, the team's new bosses, had no reason to actually schedule any time for real IE work. So later, when that particular set-top box got cancelled, the IE team got redployed for other WebTV work, and since this was now out of MacBU's control, nothing could really be done.

3 or 4 years went by before enough people in the Mac division wanted to resume work on IE, and when it looked like we might actually need the technology, as a base for MSN-for-Mac, the IE 6 team was formed. It got a firm OS X-only foundation, a new even more complient browser base, and then suddenly it became apparent that Apple was doing their own browser, because, well, there were lots of small clues, but the big clues was that Apple had started calling the old Mac IE team offering them jobs.

By that time the Mac division had formally committed to MSN-for-Mac-OSX, so it's not like we were completely going to stop work. But a meeting was held internally, the outcome of which was that it didn't make sense to build our own browser if Apple was going to bundle one, because the marketshare and mindshare of the distant-second-place browser, on the distant-second-place platform, wasn't worth pursuing. A week later we had a meeting with high-up people at Apple, where they told us they were doing a browser. And the week after that, after confirming it with Bill Gates, who was reportedly sad but understanding of the decision, MacIE was officially shut down.

MSN-for-MacOSX went ahead, and was also critically acclaimed, but once released, indications were that the number of users was about the same as the number of developers. After that, MacBU concentrated once again on the next Office release, and MacIE has been well and truly and permanently dead ever since.

Over the whole sad journey, the single most surprising thing I ever discovered was from a small conversation that went:

Me: "Look, if it makes sense to devote dozens of people to WinIE, then surely it makes sense to devote half a dozen to MacIE!"

Higher-up: <confused look> "There aren't dozens of people on WinIE. WinIE had some great people on it! We need those great people on products that make money!"

Me: "Then why on earth did we pursue IE in the first place? Just so that the DOJ would sue us?"

Higher-up: <confused look>

Some day I hope to get a proper answer on our motivation to do WinIE and MacIE in the first place. It seems to be that we were scared of not having control of the HTML standard. And indeed, now that Firefox is gaining traction, Microsoft has added more people to WinIE again.

Jimmy Grewal also has a blog post about this entitled End of an era: Mac Internet Explorer where he writes

This announcement has sparked some debate on Slashdot, which was inevitable. Omar pointed me to a comment to this by our former co-worker Jorg Brown, who now works for Google, which I’ll quote below:
... [see above excerpt]
A lot of what he says is true; but the story is more complex than this and there were many other factors that came into play. Issues which he doesn’t cover…primarily because he wasn’t working on the product much until the last few months of development:

  • - Mac IE was the first real browser running on Mac OS X. We had it running on Developer Preview 2 and it shipped on the Public Beta CD-ROM. That was a great engineering achievement but it came at a very high price. Developing for OS X in those early days was a nightmare and we spent so much time struggling with OS bugs and changing APIs that precious time that could have been used to improve the product was wasted just trying to maintain compatibility with each new beta release of OS X.

  • - Apple was a pain in the ass sometimes. For a company with such great PR, they really were very unprofessional and treated developers poorly. I know that the OS X transition was tough, but there are so many stories I could tell of stupidity at Apple and policies which made no sense…but I won’t. I’ll just say that Apple had a lot more involvement in the development of Mac IE and it’s eventual end than Jorg gives them credit for. There were times during the last two years of working at Microsoft that I really hated Apple’s management…which was very difficult for me being such a loyal fan of their products and having so many friends who worked there.

  • - No clear direction from our management was the last major factor which Jorg touched upon but is important to mention again. Towards the end, we had some major changes in management at the MacBU and the new team was inexperienced both with the products they were managing and how to deal with Apple. They were further handicapped by lack of clear direction by our execs who were too busy worrying about AOL, the DOJ, and our stock price.

The common thread in both perspectives is that management at Microsoft didn't see much value in continuing with IE on the Mac. Jorg doesn't seem to understand why but the reason seems clearer to me.Microsoft is a platform company. We have built the most popular software platforms on the planet; Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. In the 1990s, two technologies/products attempted to take the place of Windows as the world's #1 developer platform. These technologies/products were the Java platform produced by Sun Microsystems and the Netscape Navigator web browser produced by Netscape. Microsoft met both challenges in a variety of ways including making sure that Windows  (a) was the best platform to run Java applications and (b) had the best Web browser on any platform. The goal was simple if Java or the web browser became the platform, then that platform would at the end still be a Windows platform. Of course, some other decisions Microsoft made with regards to competing with Sun and Netscape landed the company in court with billions of dollars in fines and settlements. 

Fast forward to the early 2000s, the browser wars are over and IE is the world's dominant Web browser. In an almost text book example of how monopolies work, Microsoft abandoned innovation in IE in a move that showed that at this point IE was considered a cost center not a revenue generator. It simply doesn't make business sense for Microsoft to invest in a technology that dintermediates it's most popular platform, the Windows operating system. This should sound familiar to you if you've read The Innovators Dilemma.

It's now the mid-2000s and the Web browser landscape has changed. Technologies such as DHTML and IXMLHttpRequest which were invented by Microsoft to make IE the best developer platform on the Web have been adopted by competitors like Google and rival Web browsers like Mozilla. Despite our best efforts, the Windows platform is being routed around and even worse it is by technologies we invented. In this case Microsoft has been hoisted by its own petard

These developments have caused renewed interest in IE [at least on Windows] by Microsoft which is why I went from two years of being a Microsoft employee and not believing an IE team existed to reading the IE blog which makes it seem that there is now a veritable army of developers working on IE. The only problem is that I expect that history will repeat itself. What happens when IE reaches feature parity with Mozilla? Will we have to wait until Windows Blackcomb until we see Internet Explorer 8? Given how Microsoft [and specifically the Windows division] works this isn't as crazy an idea as it sounds. 

I can think of two ways to prevent history from repeating itself. The first is that Microsoft officially disbands the IE team after IE 7. The second is that Microsoft transfers the IE team to a product group that actually depends on browser innovative to make money such as MSN Windows Live. We haven't innovated in the browser for almost a decade. IE 5 was the last truly innovative release. Ex-IE team members like Scott Berkun who wrote the classic How to build a better web browser show exactly stagnant the world of Web browser innovation has been this century. Given that Microsoft views IE as a defensive option to make Windows an enticing product, there is less incentive to make it the ultimate browsing experience as products whose bread and butter is the Web browser. Why do you think there are so many Google employees working on Mozilla?

Microsoft should either cede innovation in the Web browser to Mozilla/Google or make IE more than just "icing on the Windows user experience cake"by transfering the product to a team whose bottom line depends on browser innovation. Of course, I doubt that my words will be taken seriously by folks at Microsoft [except as a reason to send my boss or his boss angry mail] but this needs to be said.


Categories: Life in the B0rg Cube
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