Microsoft to Retire Internet Explorer: Lessons for Today’s Antitrust Cases

Microsoft just announced it will retire its Internet Explorer browser next year. This is the same program that was at the heart of an antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in the late 1990s. There are two lessons here for today’s calls for expanding antitrust enforcement. One is that making something the default option does not guarantee that people will use it. The second is that the difference between a 90 percent market share and a laughing stock can be as small as a few years.

Internet Explorer was bundled into Microsoft’s Windows operating system, and Microsoft would not allow computer manufacturers to unbundle it. It was also set as Windows’ default browser in every new machine. It had a 90 percent market share in 2001, when the case was still active. The antitrust case argued that Microsoft’s inclusion of Internet Explorer with Windows was illegal tying—requiring consumers to buy two products together, even if they only want one of them.

The case more or less ended in a draw. The initial decision to break the company up was overturned on appeal. In the final settlement, Microsoft made some minor concessions to the government and paid about $3 billion to competitors who had sued it in separate private antitrust lawsuits.

Just a few years later, Internet Explorer’s 90 percent market share cratered. It turns out that making something the default option is not enough to make people actually use it. A succession of superior browsers, including Mozilla’s Firefox and Google Chrome, have taken turns as the leading browsers. Chrome is the current market leader with about a 65 percent market share.

As a response to the competition, Microsoft launched Edge, a new browser, and made it the default Windows browser. Its market share is currently about 3 percent. Internet Explorer is around 1 percent.

Microsoft’s real-world experience puts a damper on today’s antitrust claims that Google, Apple, and Amazon giving preferential treatment to their in-house offerings is an effective anti-competitive strategy. This is because of what I call the dozen keystrokes argument—that’s about how difficult it is to download a different browser, type in a different search engine’s URL, join a new social network, or find a different product in a search.

Internet Explorer’s journey to the pasture is not the only news story poking holes in populist antitrust arguments. AT&T is selling its WarnerMedia division for about half of what it paid for it just three years ago. The deal was nearly blocked, with critics arguing that combining network infrastructure and media content in the same company would devastate competition. Now AT&T is refocusing on networks, while WarnerMedia is attempting to compete with a raft of streaming services, many of which did not exist just a few years ago. Antitrust regulators’ cries of foul will never change, but markets always do. Just ask Microsof and AT&T.