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Internet explorer was an overnight . . . failure.

Microsoft Corp.'s Web browser made its debut in August 1995. The good news was that it was bundled within Windows 95, giving it extraordinary distribution. The bad news: Microsoft admits the first Explorer was inferior to market leader Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator, and PC users didn't bite.

Microsoft didn't assign anyone to Explorer marketing until after the product shipped. But then Microsoft delegated engineers to repair and marketers to promote it, making the browser central to the company's late '95 refocus on the World Wide Web.

"We certainly felt like the underdog," recalls Yusuf Mehdi, 30, a five-year Microsoft veteran who leads the Explorer marketing team.

It had just a 3% share of the browser market in February 1996, says a Zona Research survey measuring business users' browser preferences. By last January, the browser jumped to 28%.

The keys: Along with product improvements in Internet Explorer 3.0 and a better price (Chairman Bill Gates announced Explorer would be free forever, while Netscape charges for Navigator), there was marketing.

Microsoft began a print and Web ad blitz last summer, encouraging trial by giving IE users free Web subscriptions to The Wall Street Journal and ESPN SportsZone. And it set up an Web site featuring a "competitive taste test" with testimonials from users who had switched.

"With IE 3.0, we thought of ourselves as the underdog," Mr. Mehdi says. "When you are the No. 2 company, you have to take some risks, you have to be aggressive."

Mr. Mehdi, promoted from group product manager to director of marketing , Internet Explorer, resolves to take the market lead with the upcoming Explorer 4.0. He now oversees a group of more than 20 marketing staffers-a contingent as large as the marketing team behind Windows 95.

"Having a majority presence in the browser market is very important," Mr. Mehdi says. "You are top of mind with every consumer or customer that wants to use the

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