Microsoft: Give IE another chance

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By Gregg Keizer, Computerworld | August 15th, 2014

Tidbits from a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” chat also include browser name-change, faster updates and the demise of IE8.

In a wide-ranging “Ask Me Anything” chat on Reddit Thursday, developers and program managers from the Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) team urged users to give the browser a second chance, crowed over the upcoming demise of IE8, and confirmed that even though they will push small, regular feature updates to customers, there will be an IE12.

They also revealed that they have considered changing Internet Explorer’s name to distance the browser from its often-negative reputation.

Ars Technica reported on the name-change discussion on Thursday.

Internet Explorer has a “user share,” a rough measurement of the percentage of the world’s computer users running a specific browser, of 58%, according to metrics vendor Net Applications. That’s nearly triple the 20% of the second-place contestant, Google’s Chrome.

But IE was once far more dominating: In January 2005, when Computerworld began recording Net Applications’ data, IE had a user share of 89%. Then, the second-place Firefox held just a 6% share.

Since its low point in December 2011, when it accounted for a 52% share, IE has clawed out of a long, steady decline that originated with a decision more than a decade ago to essentially stop development. Microsoft thought it had won the browser war.

Now, its developers want Windows users to give IE another shot.

“Often times the decision to not use Internet Explorer is largely based on experiences from a decade ago, and a much different IE,” argued Jonathan Sampson on the Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA). “That being said, we know it’s our job to change the public perception, and to win the hearts of users everywhere. Each [person who] opens IE, and downloads another browser, is another person we’ll be working even harder tomorrow to win back.”

Other comments on the chat elaborated on the perception change Microsoft was hoping for. After someone asked whether the company had ever considered dropping the name “Internet Explorer” — a way to distance the new from the old — Sampson weighed in.

“It’s been suggested internally; I remember a particularly long email thread where numerous people were passionately debating it. Plenty of ideas get kicked around about how we can separate ourselves from negative perceptions that no longer reflect our product today,” Sampson said, then coyly hinted that the move might be in the cards. “The discussion I recall seeing was a very recent one (just a few weeks ago). Who knows what the future holds?”

Elsewhere in the discussion, commenters both applauded Microsoft’s recent decision to stop serving security updates for older IE editions as of January 2016, and asked a few questions about the policy, which repudiated decades of support promises.

“How serious are you guys about forcing enterprises to move to IE11? My employer is dragging their feet to even upgrade to [IE]9,” asked one participant.

“We’re serious,” replied Colleen Williams of the IE team. She also reported that the IE team was as happy with the decision as most of the AMA commenters who touched on the support stoppage. After someone asked, “What was the attitude in the room when Microsoft issued its browser support policy?” her reply was revealing.

“There was a collective cheer when the policy was changed,” Williams said.

While that may have been the case — perhaps sparked, said analysts last week, by the resulting cutback in the testing required to support fewer versions — the cheers Williams noted must have been discouraging to the enterprises that will feel the brunt of the new policy.

“This will irritate enterprise customers,” said Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft a week ago of the support changes. “They want to hang on to their legacy [Web] apps.”

The AMA thread also touched on Microsoft’s new accelerated release cadence, another in a series of announcements from the Redmond, Wash. company last week. The plan, Microsoft said, was to update Windows with smaller, more-frequent feature refreshes. That will also apply to IE, which received several improvements — primarily to integrated developer tools — on Aug. 8, Microsoft’s monthly “Patch Tuesday” slate of security patches.

“Starting with IE11, we’ve been using our existing monthly ‘Patch/Update Tuesdays’ to start shipping more than just security and reliability fixes,” noted Jacob Rossi on the AMA. “Last week, we started rolling out new and improved F12 Developer Tools, WebGL Instancing Extension and other improvements, and also the infrastructure for WebDriver support.”

In effect, Microsoft wants to mimic the regular, and frequent, upgrades that Google and Mozilla provide for their Chrome and Firefox browsers. IE’s developers pointed out that the release pace has quickened.

“We’ve gotten faster,” said Williams. “Went from 2 years to 18 months to 12 months [between IE10 and IE11]. We’re getting better but more work to do.” She also called a cadence similar to Chrome’s and Firefox’s — the former updates to a new version number every six to eight weeks, the latter, every six weeks — a goal for Microsoft and IE.

“I would really love to see us be able to ship at a quicker cadence,” answered Greg Whitworth after a commenter asked him to name one IE improvement on his wish list. “This would allow us to address issues (and add new features) we find in a more timely manner. We’re getting there, but we admittedly still have a ways to go.”

That aside, Microsoft will apparently keep to its practice of changing version numbers only infrequently, not with every monthly update, as do Google and Mozilla.

There will be an IE12, in other words.

“Will there ever be an IE12, or should we interpret the inclusion of functional changes in IE11’s minor updates as an indication that IE11 will be the last version of the browser?” asked an AMA participant.

“IE11 will not be the latest version of the browser,” answered Charles Morris.

IE12 will likely be released alongside “Threshold,” the code name for the next iteration of Windows; Microsoft may end up calling it “Windows 9.” Speculation on a release timeframe for Threshold, and thus IE12, has centered on the spring of 2015, with Gartner pegging it as the second quarter, or sometime in April, May or June.

IE numerology will remain important, although how much so is unclear. In its Aug. 7 support-change announcement, Microsoft said, “Only the most recent version of Internet Explorer available for a supported operating system will receive technical support and security updates.”

If IE11 is superseded by IE12 next April, for example, the former will drop out of support for Windows 8 and 8.1, and probably also for Windows 7.

What Microsoft has so far declined to describe, however, is how long it will support IE11 after a successor appears. Some have interpreted Microsoft’s statement of “only the most recent version” to mean that as soon as IE12 debuts, IE11 drops into the retirement bucket.

While the question of the future support timeline didn’t come up in yesterday’s AMA, in several replies the IE team hinted that the death of IE11 support will come sooner rather than later.

“We have a very strong goal to get users on the most current version of the browser,” said Matt Rakow.

The Ask Me Anything can be read in its entirety on Reddit.