Why Internet Explorer 7 Shouldn’t Matter

Motivations and Bias

I’ve long been a Microsoft enthusiast, heartily embracingthe platform and the development tools.

My first real professional development job was with Visual C++Professional v1.0 (after years doing less professional workwith tools like DJGPP) — a productthat came in a giant 50lb box full of huge reference manuals, alongwith a giant stack of floppies — and my work and home lifehave predominately relied upon various incarnations of Windowsthroughout the years, from 3.11 to Windows Server 2003R2. I’vepersonallypursued various certifications from Microsoft, and will becompleting another hopefully in a few days. I’ve been developing inC, and then C++, and then .NET since the first beta, on theMicrosoft platform, along with some deviant Win32-targeting objectPascal Delphi work, relying upon great products like SQL Server, orsubsystems like MSMQ, ActiveDirectory, and DCOM, to build amazingsolutions.

I’ve been branded a Microsoft astroturfer/paid-shill countlesstimes on sites like Slashdot for speaking out against some rampant anti-Microsoft mistruths, andfor defending some of Microsoft’s actions (though I still haven’treceived a cheque from Microsoft for my volunteer advocacy…).

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I’ve even written for Microsoft’s premiere development magazine.

Yet I have zero personal interest in WindowsInternet Explorer 7*, beyond professional observation. Perhapsit’ll have some yet unannounced amazing new innovation when it’seventually released, but as it is it’s nothing more than analso-ran, finally bringing functionality that competitorssuch as Firefox andOpera have had for years. Otherfunctionality, such as the sandbox model IE will have on Vista –which they’ve built for the inevitable exploits that willfollow — rely upon operating system shims that only Microsofthas the privilege of adding. Presumably this same functionalitywill exist for alternate software products as well, so there’s noreason — beyond the type that the Justice Department would takeinterest in — that Firefox and Opera won’t gain the ability toutilize the functionality.

Microsoft Abandoned the Browser Market

If users are waiting with baited breath, living with theirhalf-a-decadeold Internet Explorer 6 in anxious anticipation of Microsoftfinally putting some care into their browser, they need toseriously ask themselves why they haven’t considered or evaluatedthe superior alternatives that are freely available. IT departmentsthat simply coast along with whatever their Microsoft rep hasdecreed as acceptable need to ask themselves the same thing, andblanket decrees such as a banning of Firefox on corporate machinesneed credible justifications, and not just some baselessfear-mongering by a group that doesn’t want the bother.

Internet Explorer wasn’t always such a boring product. Theperiod of greatest innovation with Internet Explorer happened inthe IE 4 and IE 5 timeframe, when we gained functionality such asXML, XML data islands, the foundation ofAJAX (if you had the luxury of only targeting IE 5+, you couldbuild web apps in 1999 that rival the most “innovative” Web 2.0sites today), implementing advanced CSS and DOM functionalitysimultaneous with, or ahead of, competitors. This was when the teamseemed to have free reign, and whose primarymotivation appear to be creating a greatbrowser, rather than the oft claimed conspiracy of buildingMicrosoft tie-in — in fact the product was cross-platform,bringing a great browser to the Mac, for instance.

Of course, then they were trying to win the browser wars, andthe result was the quickdecimation of Netscape’s marketshare. Microsoft’s best mindsrapidly created a killer web browser to kill a competitor in theweb browser market, and there is no doubt that they technicallysucceeded, evolving their browser much more rapidly than thequagmired Netscape browser.

Even with the first-rate team working on what was the premierebrowser, the market still was still very slow to adapt: Microsofthad so thoroughly intertwined the browser in the operating systemthat it became a potentially dangerous operation upgrading. It’sfor this reason that old version of Internet Explorer lived onlong past their presumed expiration date, with ITdepartments hesitant to upgrade. This system interweave yieldedsome advantages, such as embedded browsers in divergentapplications such as Quickbooks, yet it came at the cost ofgreatly reduced agility of the foundation. Compare this to aproduct like Firefox that exists largely as a software island,where uptake of new, feature-enhanced versions happens at anextremely rapid pace. Taking advantage of the new functionality inOpera 9 or Firefox 2(*2) would be no more risky, for most users,than upgrading their copy of WinTetris.

Microsoft won the browser war, and seeing how this new platformcould actually undermine their own business, and reduce dependencyon the Windows platform, the team was dispersed far and wide. Allwork on Internet Explorer, outside of emergency security fixes, wasstopped. The internet world that had now come to rely largely uponthe rapidly evolving Internet Explorer now saw absolutely noprogress, while inside Microsoft they strategized how best to buildWindows-specific technologies to pull developers and users back(such as XAML and one-touch deployment), tying them once againstspecifically to the Microsoft platform.

Five years+ on, the tide isslowly shifting, and Firefox is rapidly gaining marketshare,and the capable Opera browser continues to idle at a low level.Among sites catering to the IT/software development market, Firefoxuse is dominant. Public websites that demand Internet Explorer arequickly going extinct, and cast considerable doubt on the prowessof their creators.

Insidious Motives

Even if Internet Explorer 7 were a much more exciting productthan it has proven thus far, I would still advocateagainst it.

We saw previously how Microsoft used the browser market onlywhile it was in her interest, and then promptly abandoned its userswhen it wasn’t, and there is no reason to think the same won’tcontinue. Having users rush to Internet Explorer 7, killinginterest (and thus the speed of development for) competitors won’tdo the web any good when Microsoft promptly stops developmentagain, enticing you to dump this crazy web thing and embrace thenext evolution of fat apps. Given that the browser is largelycontrary to Microsoft’s business interests, it seems an outcomethat is inevitable.

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Indeed, Internet Explorer 7 was originally only slated to comeout for Longhorn (now Vista), as a sort of carrot to interestusers in the otherwise boring upgrade, however the endlessslips of Vista, coupled with rumors of Google enteringthe browser fray (which they have indirectly through somehealthy financial support of the Mozilla Foundation), led themto revise their plans. Yet it still remains that some of the mostvaluable improvements of IE 7 will only be available if you upgradeto Vista (so if you’re running IE7 on XP, you’re running a sort ofIE7-lite). Compare this to Firefox, where the exact same browser,and largely the same set of superlative extensions, runs on ahuge range of operating systems, from obsolete to cuttingedge: Firefox has no agenda to get you to upgrade your operatingsystem, so such a differentiation doesn’t exist, and you can takeadvantage of advanced cavas elements and svg right now.

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Internet Explorer 7

  • The web browser is anathemic to Microsoft’s core revenue, whichis Windows, and to a lesser degree, Office. The more you browse theweb, the less it matters what your underlying operating system is:Firefox is virtually identical in Linux, FreeBSD, OSX, and Windows.Microsoft can’t be trusted to shepherd this, especially givenflattening revenue that has seen that organization much moreactively pursue unrealized revenue (such as Genuine Advantage,Software Assurance, Activation, and so on).
  • Alternatives give you platform choices, which encouragescompetitiveness in the free market. Even if you don’t run Linux,using and learning Firefox, and ensuring that all of your corporatewebsites work properly on Firefox and other options, ensures thatif you wanted to it would be largely painless.
  • Decoupling the browser from the operating system gives you amuch greater browser agility, reducing the risk of upgrades to thisquickly evolving platform.

*- Based upon the great success they had with the .NETmarketing wave, Microsoft is now widely branding their products andtechnologies with the prefix “Windows”, so instead of MicrosoftInternet Explorer (MSIE), it’s Windows Internet Explorer (WIE?WinIE?), or perhaps Microsoft Windows Internet Explorer. This is totry to get the unrecognized name “Windows” out in themarketplace.

*2 – Apart from Firefox extensions, which are becoming a bit ofa problem with each new version of Firefox. The break rate ofextensions is so high that it’s creating the sort of resistance tochange that used to happen with Internet Explorer. The Firefox teamreally needs to solidify their API, allowing new extensions to takeadvantage of newer interfaces without breaking the existingextensions.