Like many of us, Microsoft does its best work when it's running scared. Back in the mid-1990s, when Bill Gates & Co. thought that pioneering Web browser Netscape Navigator posed an existential threat to Windows, they responded by bundling their own new browser, Internet Explorer, with Windows 95. That led to the little legal kerfuffle known as United States v. Microsoft. But the truth is that Internet Explorer got so good so quickly that things would have been dicey for Netscape no matter what.
Microsoft's share of the browser market passed 90% early in this century. With Netscape vanquished, the Internet Explorer team went into hibernation, ignoring the software until it was an embarrassing, archaic mess. Even versions 7 and 8—released after an army of volunteer geeks resuscitated Navigator as Firefox in 2004 and began chipping away at Explorer's monopoly—weren't exactly scintillating.
Last week, Microsoft unveiled the first beta release of Internet Explorer 9, or IE9 for short. It's easily the most impressive browser upgrade to hail from Redmond, WA, since the original skirmishes with Netscape. And I don't think it's mere coincidence that it's the first one the company has hatched since its scariest current competitor, Google, got into the browser business by launching Chrome two years ago this month.
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