The Problem with Internet Explorer


Internet ExplorerAfter watching the second keynote from PDC last week, I’m now puzzled by Microsoft. In the first keynote, they seemed to get everything right. Embrace open source. Embrace cloud. Embrace what their customers want and need. Embrace strategic change

In the second keynote they seemed to do the opposite. Steven Sinofsky, in a somewhat self-congratulatory ‘review’ of the ‘lessons learned’ developing Windows 7  bored us to tears with big number telemetry stats and other ‘look at how responsive we are’ reminders, before moving on to Internet Explorer.

And whilst I was anticipating an exciting announcement about Microsoft finally getting Internet Explorer right (especially after reading reviews here, here and here), instead I was left shaking my head about the priorities that have been set.

This post from the IE blog contains most of what Steven presented. Again web standards seemed to be a focus. Guys, get over web standards please. They should just be a given. They aren’t a feature any more. And then rendering performance improvements. Sure, some animated fonts are smoother, but seriously who cares? I haven’t heard anyone ever complain about how they wished that their browser would render some special font effect better. Admittedly though, better panning of maps would be a nice improvement.  And then on to other ‘features’ of extremely limited appeal like rounded corners. Sure, there’s a very vocal (but tiny) group of people who want this, but it isn’t what the majority wants (or is even aware of!). Nor is JavaScript performance. Whilst I’m sure graphs like the following (from Sinofsky’s talk) are based on some legitimate tests being conducted, in reality I’ve never noticed much difference between IE and FireFox:

JavaScript performance in browsers

Instead I’ve noticed that Chrome seems to be a lot faster, but most of that perception is simply because it starts faster when I click it on my start bar. I’m up and browsing in an instant, not waiting a few seconds like I do with Firefox and IE.

But for argument’s sake let’s assume that JavaScript performance is a key differentiator in the browsers. In that case the improvements in IE9 should just be released as a simple patch for IE8. They shouldn’t be heralded as a reason to look forward to IE9. It’s really lame when an 8th version product tells you that a feature of the 9th version is that it is going to catch up with its competitors. Especially when there’s no release date for IE9 even being mentioned yet. Sinofsky mentioned in his keynote (around the 44:09 mark) that the above performance improvements were a result of development progress just 3 weeks into the project, so I’m assuming it isn’t that big a change…

IE9 has almost no appeal to me based on Steven’s demo. Instead, what was I hoping to see?
It’s simple: Extensibility.

The Internet Explorer team have wasted the last 2 versions (IE7 and IE8) building in accelerators, web slices and other useless guff that hardly anyone uses, and then capped it off with a ridiculous web compatibility mode that sent browser innovation back a decade.

Instead they should have learned from Firefox. Make extensibility easy. Mozilla’s available Add-ons for Firefox now run into the tens of thousands. And downloads in the billions. Yes, billions. It’s the reason why Firefox continues to grow in popularity, especially amongst developers (the very crowd that Sinofsky was presenting to at PDC). Microsoft should be providing (or at least promoting) a powerful extensibility initiative for IE.

Sadly though Microsoft seems to have its head in the sand when it comes to IE. Instead of being an IE centrepiece, the IE Add-ons site feels like a we-ran-out-of-budget after-thought. It’s a ghost town in there… It’s pretty telling when locally the most popular Add-ons for IE are based on 2 ratings, and are mostly simple web slices. And perhaps even a little tragic when one of the most popular Add-ons is an accelerator to enable basic Google Australia searches in IE.

One of the reasons IE has such a big market share is because in the enterprise space it is unbeatable in terms of deployment flexibility. IT Managers can control almost every aspect of its install, functionality and branding. IT Pros have been well catered for by IE. Now it’s time to cater to the developers.

Apps are the key with Mobile (in spite of what Ray Ozzie might or might not have said), and they’re the key with browsers. If Microsoft wants IE to be a cornerstone of their ‘3 Screens and a Cloud’ strategy (unveiled by Ray in the first keynote), then they need to build a vibrant developer ecosystem around IE, and not mistakenly think that Silverlight controls will be a viable substitute. The App model is important. Thankfully Microsoft has realised it with SharePoint, and they’ve even realised it with data. So, why can’t they realise it with IE?


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By Craig Bailey