I was part of the Internet Explorer leadership and ran Program Management through the launch of Internet Explorer 5.0, so I can talk about what made Internet Explorer amazing during the “good years” (the 1990s).
Back in the mid-late 1990s, Microsoft recruited its absolute sharpest talent to work on the Internet problem.. or the browser (IE) and server (IIS) teams. The vice president in charge of these teams (Brad Silverberg) was one of Microsoft’s best executives ever; he had previously been in charge of the insanely successful Windows 95. And all the way down through the individual engineers, program managers, and testers, the Internet Explorer team was full of superstars. Our work was more than work, it was a passion and life-mission. We ate all our meals on the job; we worked very very late nights. I would often go to sleep under my desk at 6 am only to wake up the next morning at 8 am ready for work. We had this sense that this multi-billion-$ company was going to lose its future unless we could get ahead of the Internet wave, and that meant having the #1 browser on the planet. We invented things that hadn’t been done before (such as the auto-complete in the addressbar or other forms, or dynamic HTML now known as Ajax, or the XML pre-cursor to RSS). And we made Internet Explorer twice as fast and 100 times more stable than the crash-prone Netscape Navigator. All of these things helped Internet Explorer 5.0 win share, and win 100% of all product reviews vs the competition.
After Internet Explorer 5.0, the project was shifted towards more of what one would call “maintenance mode”. Many of the top players left the team. I left Microsoft, but had I stayed, the expectation was that I’d join a new team. And much of the entire team itself was moved in bulk to a new project. Part stayed behind to ship Internet Explorer 5.5 and Internet Explorer 6.0, which were mostly about bug-fixing and matching the Windows 95 user interface. But most were reorganized into the MSN division to build MSN Explorer. At the time, Microsoft had decided that the browser war was over, browsers were history, and the new enemy was AOL.
Throughout my time at Microsoft, it has always been sad to see the Internet side define itself more based on who it wanted to compete with (Netscape, AOL, Yahoo, and Google), rather than defining its own vision of what it wanted to be. So when Netscape was defeated and owned by AOL, the browser team was basically split up and many of the best people re-focused to compete against AOL. This isn’t to say that the folks who remained on Internet Explorer weren’t good people – but there were fewer of them, without the wind of a company-wide “jihad” behind their sails and fueling their passions.
It was a few years later when Microsoft realized the threat of Firefox, and great people were re-assigned back to the Internet Explorer team. I had left Microsoft, so I can’t say with much knowledge why Internet Explorer continued to lose share, except to observe that by the time this effort started, the lead in product quality had been lost and it was a catch-up game.