Microsoft's IE steps back from the brink of irrelevance

Beats the odds, and reverses some of the massive declines of 2005-2011

Microsoft has managed a feat seldom seen in software -- it's reversed years of sometimes-sharp decline in Internet Explorer's user share and revived interest in the browser it bundles with Windows.

Web analytics company Net Applications, which tracks browser use by monitoring unique visitors to customers' websites, said Internet Explorer (IE) ended June with a 58.5% user share, up 6.5 percentage points from its record low of December 2011.

That increase represented a 13% gain in IE's user share from the trough two and a half years ago.

It's unusual for an application to get a second chance after it's been in long decline, especially when the program has lost as much ground as did IE: At the start of 2005, nearly 9 out of every 10 online users ran IE.

But first Mozilla's Firefox, which debuted as version 1.0 in November 2004, then Google's Chrome, a rival that launched in September 2008, stole large chunks of user share from IE as Microsoft let development stagnate. IE flirted with ceding its majority position in December 2011 -- at the time Computerworld rashly predicted that would happen within months -- when it hit a low of 51.9%, but the browser stepped back from the brink.

Since IE's low point, Microsoft has released IE10 (in October 2012) and IE11 (October 2013). But it was March 2009's IE9, some believe, that made the turnaround possible. "IE9 was a superb browser and was only improved by IE10, essentially closing the gap with the fast-moving Chrome and Firefox efforts," said IDC analysts Al Hilwa in an interview 18 months ago.

More than 55% of those running IE used IE9, IE10 or IE11 in June.

IE had some tough years -- 2008 and 2009, in particular, followed closely by 2011 -- but unlike most software that has edged toward the grave, it recovered, if only by a fraction of what it had lost.

Most just-as-famous software couldn't duplicate that deed. Lotus 1-2-3, for example, was the premier business program in the mid-80s. But the spreadsheet fell into steady decline the next decade under assault from Microsoft's Excel, and didn't survive. Last year, IBM, which acquired Lotus in 1995, announced it was killing the brand, and would drop support of all Lotus-labeled products, including IBM Lotus 123 Millennium Edition V, in September 2014.

But IE regained about three percentage points in user share each of the years 2012 and 2013, and has added another half a point in the first half of 2014. The slower growth this year, on pace for a one percentage point increase, may indicate that IE's recovery is nearing an end.

The revival was on the desktop, where Windows, even as it's threatened by slumping PC sales and an onslaught of smartphones and tablets, remains king with a user share of 91.5%. When mobile is added to the mix, however, IE faces a more precarious future.

Eighteen months ago, when Computerworld first reported on the browser's comeback, IE on mobile accounted for a puny 1% of smartphone and tablet browser user share. Since then, IE has doubled its share to an almost-as-anemic 2%.

Few statistics better illustrate Microsoft's failure on mobile.

In overall browser user share -- desktop + mobile -- IE remains the leader, thanks to the desktop, at 48.3%. But as mobile browsing slowly becomes a bigger portion of all browsing -- at the moment, it's desktop over mobile by more than 4:1 -- Microsoft's inability to attract eyeballs to its smartphone and tablet browsers means the company risks losing the war even if it has won the battle to bring back IE on the desktop.

Internet Explorer first appeared in 1995, and will celebrate its nineteenth "birthday" on Aug. 16.

Over the last two-and-a-half years, IE's user share has recovered a small but significant portion of what it had lost to Firefox and Chrome since 2005. (Data: Net Applications.)

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Read more about internet in Computerworld's Internet Topic Center.

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