Why does Microsoft bother with Internet Explorer?

W

Internet Explorer - why does Microsoft bother?For a while* now I’ve been wondering what value there is in having web browser market share?

Or more specifically, why does Microsoft continue to invest in building their browser. And further, why do they spend money promoting it? You’ll see here in GP’s post that IE8 is a significant strategy for the company (in Australia at least).

In a nutshell the question is: What value is there in being the dominant browser?

For example: Let’s assume that one browser is completely dominant (eg 95% as IE used to have ‘back in the day’). What would this achieve? What monetization value does this actually provide? Is it the ability to drive some traffic to promoted sites? Is it branding? Is it about providing a better tool for users? Unlikely…

What its not

First a few obvious comments:

So, what reasons are relevant?

The Google Chrome answer

Why did Google build Chrome?The thing to consider is this: Why has Google entered the browser market?

Whilst I won’t deny that Google (or Microsoft for that matter) have an interest in making the internet ‘a better place’, I’m sure they aren’t building their browser(s) for the same reasons as say Mozilla are.

Rather, in Google’s case it is much more likely to be about being able to improve the profit making potential of their income producing lines.

I wonder if this might be about search after all…

Consider this. What are search engines trying to achieve?

As search engines evolve, their primary purpose is to give users the best, most relevant results. To date, this has been achieved by analysing the content, looking at linking patterns and myriad other algorithmic factors. Remember, search is still in its infancy. But it is starting to evolve…

It’s about the experience

A fundamental way search engines can give users better results is by understanding how the user experiences the web. So, by understanding better how a browser renders a page, and correlating that with what users like (eg at its simplest, whether they click the ‘Back’ button after clicking on a search result), they can start to make some interesting deductions.

(Keep in mind that how a user ‘sees’ page is much different to how a bot ‘sees’ a page. Understanding how a page renders is quite different to pulling out the content from the html. A user experiences how a page renders. A bot deduces how the content is presented. That’s why eye-tracking studies are so valuable – it’s not so much what the content is, but rather, how we experience it and react to it.)

Steve Ballmer - Microsoft to spend billions on search in the next 5 yearsWith search being such an important strategy for Microsoft now (Steve mentions they’ll be spending billions on it in the next 5 years), it isn’t really a surprise that they’ll be using every possible input in order to provide the best results (or at least the perception of) to users.

By having a deep understanding of how users (literally) view content they will have an advantage when it comes to understanding why users react to certain content. And from that they can deduce what future searches would be best met with.

Put another way: Microsoft isn’t so much interested in providing a better browser experience (despite what their marketing fluff says), but rather in understanding what a user’s browser experience is.

Aside: Google book search

Consider the Google book search program****. One of the reasons Google has invested so much in its Book search program is in order to improve the experience. Sure, on one hand it is about providing access to more content. But on another it is about understanding how ‘real’ content is written. How it is formatted. How it is laid out.

Understand the content experience of enough books and you have an insight into how ‘real’ content is presented (as well as all the other factors like LSI etc). And if you can spot ‘real’ content you have a better chance of separating the ‘obviously prepared for search engines’ content from the ‘prepared for people’ content.

Which in turn allows you to provide better search results to users.

An ideal world…

In an ideal world users wouldn’t have to view a list of search results. Instead they’d simply put in a search term and be taken straight to the best result for them. They’d expect the ‘thing’ (browser/search engine/internet/whatever) to do the thinking for them and give them the result they need.

There’s a few reasons this isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

20-25% of Google queries have never been searched before

  • A significant portion of search engine queries are unique. One statistic that is often quoted is that 20-25% of search queries each day are unique***.
  • Search engines need to know a lot more about you before they can reliably give you what is best for you. It will be interesting to see how privacy and localisation issues relate to this in the coming 12-24 months.
  • And of course, the engines can’t make money if they aren’t the intermediary.

So for foreseeable future, use of search engines is only going to increase.

It’s not just about advertising

BTW don’t think that Microsoft’s Bing strategy is just about advertising revenue (although that of course is a big part of it). Much of Microsoft’s success depends on adoption of new products and version upgrades. And in turn a big part of promoting adoption is reaching the typically hard-to-reach users. These are the people who (happily) use older versions (think Windows XP, Office 2003, Visual Studio 2005, etc) and are oblivious to the benefits of new versions. How do you reach them?

Well, chances are they do have problems and issues to solve. So imagine the value of understanding what these typically hard-to-reach people are searching for (I’ve kinda touched on this in the past). If you know what they are searching for, you have a key insight into what content to provide on your sites. And the greater your search engine penetration the better insight you have.

Thus, by increasing search market share, Microsoft can gain a significant insight and strategic advantage in positioning its entire product line.

Back to Internet Explorer

Let’s return to how this all relates to Internet Explorer.

Here’s my summary:

  1. Search is incredibly important to Microsoft (both as an advertising revenue source, and an insight into the minds of hard-to-reach users in order to up-sell them)
  2. Microsoft needs to provide a better search tool (in order to compete with Google)
  3. Deeply understanding how a browser renders and the browser experience of the user can be a key advantage in providing a better search tool
  4. By continuing to have the dominant browser, Microsoft has an opportunity to deeply understand the user’s browser experience and thus realise the potential of point 3
  5. Thus Microsoft needs to continue building and promoting Internet Explorer

That’s why I think Microsoft bothers with Internet Explorer.

Internet Explorer 8A final thought on Internet Explorer promotion

Whilst generating buzz about IE8 seems all well and good, I do think Microsoft need to be careful they don’t alienate their existing happy customers. I, for one, have been cringing a little of late as they launch yet another sub-par promotion.

Sure, people are talking about them, but I don’t necessarily subscribe to the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ notion. Existing customers want to be proud of their decisions, not niggled by a techie form of buyer’s remorse.

Notes:

* When I say ‘a while now’ I mean since 26 March when I started writing this post. Seriously. I need to get my act together :-)

** To be fair though – this point comes from a survey of just 50 people – hardly indicative of reality.

*** Keep in mind that the 20-25% statistic is from 2007.

**** I need to credit Aaron Wall for many of the thoughts in this post. I’m a member of his SEO training program and have found it invaluable. One of his posts (within the training – so I can’t link to it unfortunately) mentions the benefit of understanding how browsers render. He also describes how Google has benefited from its book search program. The 20-25% image is taken from Aaron’s SEM Training blog post.

38 comments

  • Microsoft earns most of their money on "downloadable and installable" software, if the "browser application experience" becomes too great, nobody will "download and install" Microsoft software. By having the most dominant browser having WAY inferior quality Microsoft can keep the Status Quo…

    They might have other reasons, but at least this is one…

  • Microsoft earns most of their money on "downloadable and installable" software, if the "browser application experience" becomes too great, nobody will "download and install" Microsoft software. By having the most dominant browser having WAY inferior quality Microsoft can keep the Status Quo…

    They might have other reasons, but at least this is one…

  • LOL Thomas!
    On a more serious note though, I’d be interested to know how you define ‘way inferior quality’. Is it performance, Extensibility, etc?
    Cheers,
    Craig

  • LOL Thomas!
    On a more serious note though, I’d be interested to know how you define ‘way inferior quality’. Is it performance, Extensibility, etc?
    Cheers,
    Craig

  • IE also is a medium for Microsoft to push updates for the OS. I dont think you can update Windows via Firefox (but I am not sure)

  • IE also is a medium for Microsoft to push updates for the OS. I dont think you can update Windows via Firefox (but I am not sure)

  • @ halcyon : There is a Firefox add-on which will run Windows Update

    MS pushes IE for three reasons. One of them is to drive traffic to MSN (default website) which has many Bing links, leading to more ad dollars, as you suspect.

    You found the clue for the second reason – Google Chrome – but you missed the bigger picture. Google pushes Chrome so it can support Google Apps and Gmail in the best way possible. They want to be _the_ portal to the web. Microsoft does not want to fall behind, as their OS and Office are their only two true moneymakers. Step one is to try and make/keep yourself the number one web browser, step two is to migrate to the web, which they are apparently doing going forward, starting with downloadable apps for Windows 7 and eventually probably leading to full web apps online.

    The third reason is just to hedge their bets. No one knows where the web is going, and when it goes somewhere new that can be monetized, no one wants to be on the tail end.

  • @ halcyon : There is a Firefox add-on which will run Windows Update

    MS pushes IE for three reasons. One of them is to drive traffic to MSN (default website) which has many Bing links, leading to more ad dollars, as you suspect.

    You found the clue for the second reason – Google Chrome – but you missed the bigger picture. Google pushes Chrome so it can support Google Apps and Gmail in the best way possible. They want to be _the_ portal to the web. Microsoft does not want to fall behind, as their OS and Office are their only two true moneymakers. Step one is to try and make/keep yourself the number one web browser, step two is to migrate to the web, which they are apparently doing going forward, starting with downloadable apps for Windows 7 and eventually probably leading to full web apps online.

    The third reason is just to hedge their bets. No one knows where the web is going, and when it goes somewhere new that can be monetized, no one wants to be on the tail end.

  • I think you are also forgetting that IE is also heavily used as a platform for enterprise intranet applications. IE helps Microsoft monetize office and windows specific technologies that have little life in other browsers or in the larger internet.

    For enterprises that use Microsoft technologies IE is an integration point with their IT infrastructure. I think while IE plays this role in Microsoft shops, it will continue to have value for Microsoft.

  • I think you are also forgetting that IE is also heavily used as a platform for enterprise intranet applications. IE helps Microsoft monetize office and windows specific technologies that have little life in other browsers or in the larger internet.

    For enterprises that use Microsoft technologies IE is an integration point with their IT infrastructure. I think while IE plays this role in Microsoft shops, it will continue to have value for Microsoft.

  • Dennis,
    You are certainly correct that IE is big in enterprise. And no other browser has the deployment flexibility it has – IT departments can easily control every facet of its installation.
    However, it appears to me that most of the marketing around IE8 has been at the consumer audience (not enterprise). Would you agree?
    Craig

  • Dennis,
    You are certainly correct that IE is big in enterprise. And no other browser has the deployment flexibility it has – IT departments can easily control every facet of its installation.
    However, it appears to me that most of the marketing around IE8 has been at the consumer audience (not enterprise). Would you agree?
    Craig

  • @ Jose
    It will be very interesting to see where Google heads with Chrome. Whilst they (and everyone!) would love to be the _portal_ they will need to support all browsers to make this feasible (ie the issues with Google Wave not working on IE have limited their reach, as opposed to increasing Chrome share).

    I think your third reason is very true – hedge their bets.

  • @ Jose
    It will be very interesting to see where Google heads with Chrome. Whilst they (and everyone!) would love to be the _portal_ they will need to support all browsers to make this feasible (ie the issues with Google Wave not working on IE have limited their reach, as opposed to increasing Chrome share).

    I think your third reason is very true – hedge their bets.

  • I basically feel that Microsoft Internet Explorer 7 and 8 are really crap. Not only do you get error messages and all the other problems associated with Microsoft Internet Explorer. People should dump Microsoft Internet Explorer. The real reason is that this web browser that Microsoft created, developed and produces is not very good. Microsoft Corporation still does make excellent products their business division software is excellent, their office products are quite good. But their web browser is not very good. Their operating system Windows XP is also excellent. But if you want a really neat web browser people can actually download Mozilla Firefox or Google’s Chrome these two excellent web browsers are excellent. But if you want a excellent web browser Moziila Firefox, or Google’s Chrome is ok you will not go wrong.

    • Roger, would you care to elaborate on why you think IE is ‘crap’? Whilst I agree it has its frustrations, I’d ideally like to surface more of the specifics here. eg what are the error messages you are experiencing? What do you like about FF or Chrome that IE doesn’t have? Extensibility? Speed? etc. Thanks.

  • I basically feel that Microsoft Internet Explorer 7 and 8 are really crap. Not only do you get error messages and all the other problems associated with Microsoft Internet Explorer. People should dump Microsoft Internet Explorer. The real reason is that this web browser that Microsoft created, developed and produces is not very good. Microsoft Corporation still does make excellent products their business division software is excellent, their office products are quite good. But their web browser is not very good. Their operating system Windows XP is also excellent. But if you want a really neat web browser people can actually download Mozilla Firefox or Google’s Chrome these two excellent web browsers are excellent. But if you want a excellent web browser Moziila Firefox, or Google’s Chrome is ok you will not go wrong.

    • Roger, would you care to elaborate on why you think IE is ‘crap’? Whilst I agree it has its frustrations, I’d ideally like to surface more of the specifics here. eg what are the error messages you are experiencing? What do you like about FF or Chrome that IE doesn’t have? Extensibility? Speed? etc. Thanks.

  • It is unbelievable that a company with MS’s resources could allow something as cranky, uncompliant and behind-the-curve as IE to continue being so.
    Web dev is SUCH a p in the a with IE: works in FF, GC, Saf but flies all over the show in IE and needs tons of patching to trick it into doing the basics of layout. Crap crap crap. Balmer should STFU, go down to the IE office and either pull the plug or get his fat fingers in the code box and do some real work.

    Anyone defending IE is either on the MS payroll or has never made a website.

  • It is unbelievable that a company with MS’s resources could allow something as cranky, uncompliant and behind-the-curve as IE to continue being so.
    Web dev is SUCH a p in the a with IE: works in FF, GC, Saf but flies all over the show in IE and needs tons of patching to trick it into doing the basics of layout. Crap crap crap. Balmer should STFU, go down to the IE office and either pull the plug or get his fat fingers in the code box and do some real work.

    Anyone defending IE is either on the MS payroll or has never made a website.

About Craig

I'm the co-host of HubShots and the CEO of XEN - helping mid-large B2B companies with their digital marketing and lead generation.

Craig Bailey

Archives

Posts