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Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

Can Microsoft rise as Internet Explorer browser falls?

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is headed for the scrap heap.
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is headed for the scrap heap.AP/File

Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer (IE) browser was once so successful it nearly got the company killed. And now it’s been sentenced to death, as part of Microsoft’s plan to reinvent itself.

Earlier this week, Microsoft announced that its Windows 10 operating system, set for release sometime this summer, will no longer feature the venerable IE. It’ll be replaced by a new browser, to be named later but presently code-named Project Spartan.

It won’t be a completely clean break. Because lots of corporate software is built around certain Internet Explorer-specific features, much of the old code will remain. But for most users, the Windows 10 browsing experience will be all new.

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It’s just one example of the surge of innovation at Microsoft under new chief executive Satya Nadella. The giant software company was vastly profitable under Nadella’s predecessor Steve Ballmer. Yet it barely expanded beyond its traditional stronghold of personal computer software, despite the decline of the personal computer and lousy sales of the Microsoft Windows 8 operating system.

Now Microsoft must hold what it’s got, while getting a lot bigger in the booming Internet cloud and mobile device markets. So like an aggressive general, Nadella is attacking in every direction at once.

Consider the browser. Internet Explorer had a near-monopoly in the 1990s. The result was a federal antitrust lawsuit that nearly led to Microsoft’s court-ordered destruction. Since then the company has played relatively nice. But IE became notorious for annoying bugs and security failings. Millions of users abandoned it for alternative browsers such as Firefox and Google Chrome. Even so, nearly 60 percent of desktop computers worldwide rely on some version of IE, according to research from Net Applications of Irvine, Calif.

These days many Web browsers access the Internet from mobile devices, where IE commands less than a 3 percent share. And remember that IE sends users by default to Microsoft’s Bing search engine, where the company makes money displaying ads. The fewer IE users, the less ad revenue.

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Project Spartan — the name is inspired by the super-warriors in Microsoft’s popular Halo video games — will run on all kinds of Windows 10 devices, including Windows Phones and Surface laptops. It will include Cortana, an intelligent assistant also named after a Halo character. Cortana responds to spoken commands similar to Google Now and Apple’s Siri.

The new browser could help Microsoft regain market share on desktops. Meanwhile, Reuters last week reported that Microsoft may soon offer free versions of Cortana for Apple iOS and Android devices. It would be a shrewd move, since every Cortana Internet search is another boost for Bing.

Microsoft has made plenty of similarly daring moves lately. Consider the price of the upcoming Windows 10 upgrade: Zero. If your PC runs Windows 7 or 8, you’ll be able to download and install Windows 10 at no cost for the first year it’s on the market.

The company will even provide free upgrades to people running stolen copies of Windows — big news in China, where software theft is routine.

Microsoft won’t go broke. It’s a limited-time offer, and the company will make billions pre-installing Windows 10 on new machines. But the Windows 10 giveaway makes a superb palate-cleanser after the fiasco of Windows 8.

Next, look at Microsoft Office. As of November, Microsoft began offering free versions for iOS and Android devices. Now you can generate true Microsoft Word documents, Excel spreadsheets or PowerPoint slideshow right on your phone, without spending a dime. And even though Microsoft offers its OneDrive cloud storage service, Office users can save their files to the rival cloud service Dropbox instead.

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Then there’s Outlook, Microsoft’s e-mail management and calendar software. Microsoft offers a version for iOS and Android phones with superbly intuitive features. You can now hit “snooze” on an e-mail and have it reappear when you’re less busy. Or you can make appointments inside e-mail messages, without having to open your calendar app. It’s great stuff, and again it’s free.

Why the sudden surge of innovation? Behind it all is a determination to keep us wedded to Microsoft products at all costs. Windows must stay dominant on desktops, even by temporarily giving the software away. Microsoft must become a force in mobile computing, even if it has to ride piggyback on rival phones and tablets. And if a better browser can attract new ad revenues to Bing, then the old browser must die.

It’s a radical strategy, perhaps even a little desperate. And it might make Microsoft relevant again.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.