Attacks from hackers, takedown campaigns by web activists and conflict with the European Union: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) is not just the leading browser, it’s the most controversial one as well.

In particular, the tight links between the program, available in Version 8 since March 2009, and the Windows operating system have provided plenty of fodder for critics. It’s also a significant factor in the product’s success.

“If Internet Explorer didn’t come pre-installed, then it wouldn’t be used so often because there are better alternatives,” argues Jens Appelt from Germany’s Computer Bild magazine.

Leaving behind the matter of “better alternatives,” Appelt’s statement otherwise mirrors the sentiments of the European Union (EU) in Brussels. The EU Commission has been fighting with Microsoft over the way the company bundles its products.

IE has come pre-installed as the default browser on Windows PCs since the mid-90s. Because nine of ten computers sold worldwide are estimated to run Windows, this provides the manufacturer with an enormous channel to distribute its browser.

The company’s competitors have complained that bundling IE with Windows represents monopolistic behaviour, prompting a formal complaint by Norwegian browser maker Opera in Brussels.

The EU Commission called on Microsoft to comment on the situation.

The company then proposed allowing customers of Windows 7 to use a window to select their preferred browser themselves. Dealers could also delete the already pre-installed Internet Explorer and install other browsers.

A more radical approach to breaking Microsoft’s dominance on the browser market is being advocated by a group of activists in the US.

Their solution is a script called “Explorer Destroyer”. It allows operators of websites to determine which browser their visitors are using. If IE is discovered, then the script can be set to either politely encourage a switch to Firefox or to block access to the site altogether.

The initiative’s chances for success are questionable. Regardless of the results it produces, Microsoft’s position on top is growing progressively shakier anyway.

A study produced by the market researchers at Net Applications in Aliso Viejo, California, found that IE held only a 68-per-cent market share in late 2008. Just two years earlier that share stood at 80 per cent. Firefox snagged a 21-per-cent piece of the pie during that same period.

IE has even become the second option in some demographics. German- speaking net users, for example, are more likely to be using Firefox than the Microsoft product, claims a study by Fittkau & Maass, a German market research group.

“The use of Internet Explorer is dropping, while Firefox is picking up users,” says Jens Appelt. “But Internet Explorer always had very strong competitors. Once it was Netscape Navigator, now Firefox. It nevertheless remains the most used browser worldwide.” The biggest criticism of IE is its security. The concerns are serious enough that the Institute for Internet Security at the Polytechnic University of Gelsenkirchen in Germany actually warns against using the Microsoft browser at all.

There are various factors that contribute to the software’s problems with security. One is its appeal as a target for hackers.

With so many users, successful hacks have more of a chance to do damage.

Another strike against the software is the fact that security holes, even once discovered, take longer to patch than comparable holes for the competition. A recent test by Computer Bild magazine also showed that IE has weaknesses in its speed and functionality.

One big strength of Internet Explorer is its ease of use, Appelt says. Another plus point, the expert argues, is the very point about which the competitors complain: the fact that IE comes preinstalled, meaning that PC buyers can use it straight out of the box. But the biggest weaknesses, Appelt says, “are the limited variety of functions and the speed.” The latest version of the software appears to have gotten some of those problems under control.

“Internet Explorer 8 is already more convenient than the previous version, although it’s not quicker,” Appelt says. For example, the browser now makes suggestions while a URL is being typed in, drawing from sources like previously visited sites, browser history, or favourites. “Web Slices” allow visitors to keep tabs on frequently visited sites - such as eBay or Facebook - without having to actually call up the sites themselves.

Whether these features are enough to keep the browser ahead of the pack is questionable, says Appelt.

“Just how the usage of Internet Explorer will trend in the future depends on how good it becomes,” he notes. Microsoft has clearly accepted the fact that a major battle is brewing: it has set up portals to provide a forum for users to express their opinions and desires for the next version, IE 9.