The Irrelevancy of Internet Explorer
Microsoft made some pretty significant announcements today about the forthcoming version of Internet Explorer: IE 9. They seem to finally be on the right track this time around. While it’s great to see Microsoft emphasize standards and speed above their previous goals of proprietary backwards compatibility, this move begs the question: why is Microsoft continuing to engineer Internet Explorer to begin with?
When IE was first introduced, and especially version 6, it sort of made sense for Internet Explorer to exist regardless of how people felt about it. Microsoft’s development tools emphasized ActiveX and other proprietary technologies only found in their version of the browser. Taking advantage of these tools pretty much required an end user to run IE on Windows, and this model turned into increased Windows sales which, in turn, drove sales of other products such as Microsoft SQL Server, Office and Visual Studio to name a short few. Back in 2001, Internet Explorer on Windows was both the best client and development experience bar none. Just about everyone ran this coupling of OS and browser and, as a result, just about everyone had a similar browsing experience with little to no differentiation from one computer to the next (aside from relative connection speed, of course).
Lots of things have changed between then and now. Macromedia (and later Adobe) Flash gained a significant portion of the market for rich content (especially video) making ActiveX appear inadequate and dated. Developers began to despise the proprietary tools they were given due to poor performance and serious security issues. Finally, in 2004, Firefox version 1.0 was released and sowed the seeds for the modern standards-based Internet revolution we are living in today.
Microsoft didn’t seem to realize what was happening until it was too late. When the successor to IE 6 (version 7) was finally released in 2006, it was slower than its competition from day one and continued to have rendering issues and other incompatibilities.
While Microsoft was resting on its laurels for over five years (something I still have trouble believing), companies like Mozilla, Apple and Opera were rapidly improving their product and slowly decoupling the Internet as a whole from the proprietary technologies that continue to haunt Internet Explorer to this day.
Today, no web-enabled project would ever think about using ActiveX or any other “legacy” proprietary Microsoft client technology. IE support has come to be a serious headache rather than the best browsing and development experience. Beyond that, and thanks to some excellent cross-platform browsers like Chrome and Firefox, the preferred browsing experience can no longer be tied to one specific OS. Chrome runs incredibly fast on Windows and equally as fast on OS X. Themes and add-ons compatible with Firefox for Linux work just as well on the Windows version. From a client perspective, the OS no longer matters. Internet Explorer no longer drives sales for Microsoft.
Coming back to the question I asked in the first paragraph, if Chrome, Safari, Opera and Firefox work great on Windows and offer just about the same browsing experience as IE 9 would, why is Microsoft wasting their time and money developing a browser? It doesn’t seem to me like there is any monetary value left in developing a single-platform solution and the added expectation of backwards-compatibility seems like an enormous anchor around Microsoft’s neck.
If I were Microsoft, I’d either discontinue developing IE altogether or switch over to WebKit, an open-source rendering engine, and move the freed up engineering resources to projects that could better utilize their talent. While I’m sure Internet Explorer will be used for many years to come, it seems strangely foolish to throw resources at something that seems rather redundant and ultimately futile.