Techno Neanderthalensis: The Browser Continues to Haunt Programmers

It's no secret that many web developers wish Internet Explorer would go the way of VHS. It's clunky, it's slow, it's several iterations behind current browsers-of-choice like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. It's the province of Microsoft PC owners who rely solely on their desktop tools, for fear of downloading anything new.

But for programmers in certain industries — particularly those targeting an older demographic — it's a cross to bear. A local programmer who designs websites for philanthropies says some clients (like the Armed Forces Benefits Association) request that all features comply with Internet Explorer 8, a browser so universally detested that even Microsoft acknowledged it sucks. By one estimate, as much as 20 percent of the Bay Area's precious tech brainpower is being used to program for the timid searcher. That brings new meaning to the ascendant San Francisco buzzword “disruption.”

From a programmer's perspective, the downside of Internet Explorer is that it doesn't hew to the same engineering standards as its competitors; ergo, anyone building a website with a conventional programming language — i.e. Javascript — has to employ time-consuming work-arounds to adapt it for Internet Explorer browsers. Not to mention it's buggy, says Xavier Damman, co-creator of the S.F.-based digital media platform Storify: “You enter a black hole when you try to figure out what went wrong.”

Yet there are historical reasons for Microsoft's secession from the mainstream, and according to Filipe Fortes, a former Windows programmer who currently helms the publisher platform at Palo Alto's Flipboard, the company didn't harbor evil intent. Nor did it foresee being a drag on the entire Internet economy.

There was a time, in fact, when Internet Explorer was the flashy Cadillac of browsers, highly favored over its nearest competitor, Netscape. But Microsoft brass didn't see HTML browsers as the Internet portals of the future; they wanted to build a new system from the ground up. In 2002 they gutted the Internet Explorer 6 team (including Fortes) and effectively put the platform on life support. At that time, Microsoft still had most of the market share in software, which qualified the company to steer audiences toward new technology. It was tantamount to Henry Ford abandoning the Model T to build the Model A, not realizing his new line would garner a tepid reception among drivers.

The same fate befell Microsoft once it got sidelined by Google and Apple and became increasingly passé. Almost. It still dominates in older corporations that use PC computers, among Luddites who refuse to upgrade, and in South Korea, where all e-commerce sites operate exclusively on IE8, owing to archaic security laws. It's a vestigial technology that persisted way past its time — the VHS tape that certain consumers just won't give up. It will linger on PC desktops and in tech worker to-do lists in the Bay Area while the rest of the world moves on.

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