Editor s Note: This article was last updated September 10, 2015.
The battlefield in the war to become the most popular internet browser is not as crowded as you think. In the past 20 years, there have been several coups to take the crown of the internet. We are all familiar with the big current players like Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari. Most of these browsers were barely offshoots in the '90s. To understand the first great internet browser wars of the '90s, we need to look back to where it all started.
When Robert E. Kahn and Vinton Cerf (not Al Gore) developed the internet, it ran as an information gateway without the benefit of a search browser. Tim Berners-Lee created WorldWideWeb while he was employed at CERN in 1991. That early browser became synonymous with internet use from that point on. Just two years later, the NCSA Mosaic browser was released to both Windows and Mac operating systems. That software led to the development of the first major internet browser, Netscape Navigator, which started in 1994. By all accounts, Netscape Navigator was king during that decade.
Because this was the birth of wide internet usage, Netscape held the crown with little to no competition. Unfortunately for Netscape, a new competitor entered the fray. Microsoft, known for its highly successful operating system, started small by introducing Internet Explorer for free as part of its OS suite.
Netscape laughed off the arrival of Explorer because it already had the established user base. It had the advantage of timeliness. New internet adopters started with Netscape and continued to use it by default. Netscape had little to fear, but it kept adding features to its service to stay ahead of the game.
In hindsight, it was a battle that was lost because of pride. Microsoft could see that Netscape was loading features to its browsers. Microsoft, known for having a near-unlimited source of money, had a few dollars to spend, even if it knew it'd lose the short-term battle. Microsoft wasn't earning anything with each download of Internet Explorer. It was already included in Windows 95. Netscape gave away its web browser software, but charged for server software. Microsoft saw that and bundled its web server as part of its recent OS update.
Netscape was doing incredibly well into the late '90s, but it was still a smaller company looking to expand. The behemoth Microsoft kept throwing money into the browser war. It created licensing agreements with AOL to keep its dashboard more Explorer-centric. Also, Microsoft penalized computer manufacturers for having Netscape already downloaded to the OS. As the Windows OS continued to thrive through the last half of the decade, Microsoft kept pumping money into Internet Explorer.
In the end, Internet Explorer reigned supreme. Netscape Navigator went from having a 90 percent share of internet users in the mid-'90s to the point where it was losing money and had to sell to AOL in 1998. At that point, Internet Explorer had a 96 percent user rate.
Explorer's reign continued into the early 2000s. Like all monarchies and monopolies, it didn't last forever. Just as Microsoft was patting itself on the back, a few new competitors entered the field. That is a story for the second great internet browser war.