Internet Explorer: time for Microsoft to start afresh?

Internet Explorer 10 start screen tile

Happy birthday to Internet Explorer. It turned 18 years old last week.

Most web designers won’t feel like celebrating. It’s no secret that Internet Explorer is the bane of a web developer’s life. You could have a design that works perfectly in every browser under the sun, but breaks in some incomprehensible way in Internet Explorer.

Microsoft have been working hard for the past few years to improve both the browser and its image. The results have been mixed.

In terms of the browser itself, Microsoft have made tremendous strides. There were years of stagnation. The gap between the releases of IE6 and IE7 was over five years — an age in terms of the web. But since then, Microsoft have made increasingly large strides towards producing a modern, capable browser.

But it is still not fully there yet. IE9 and IE10 have come close. But I still come across features that I am staggered that IE10 does not support.

And that is where even the best marketing push cannot help Microsoft. Because why use a browser that doesn’t support the latest technology when there are at least four other excellent major browsers you could turn to instead?

Internet Explorer’s decline

The Economist has outlined the problem facing Internet Explorer. This browser was once so dominant that it actually got Microsoft into big trouble with the European Union. Now it lags far behind Google Chrome in popularity. There is no sign of the decline slowing.

Source: StatCounter

On its 18th birthday, it would be tempting to think that Internet Explorer has just been through its troubled teenage years. Now it’s becoming an adult. It should know better. It has its whole life ahead of it.

MultiBrowsers

But its age is precisely Internet Explorer’s biggest problem. Of the major browsers, Google Chrome is by far the most popular. It is also by far the youngest — only five years old.

Firefox, the next closest challenger, is 10 years old. It benefited from a fresh start in the early years, but began to lose momentum as soon as Chrome was unleashed.

Firefox and Chrome were lucky to be born in an era where web standards were recognised. When Microsoft arrived on the scene, things were a whole lot more disorganised.

An anachronistic browser

The problem with Internet Explorer’s age is that it has never had the benefit of a clean break. It goes without saying that the web is completely different to what it was in 1995. When Internet Explorer was released, HTML 2.0 was not even specified. CSS had not yet been invented.

Our ideas of web standards and best practice have changed radically since 1995. A piece of HTML code written 10 or 15 years ago could mean something different today.

IE6 was a revolutionary browser when it was launched. But after a few years it was the most hated piece of software in the web’s history. You can’t stand still in the web.

Sometimes it’s tempting to think that Microsoft should just start afresh. Why not rewrite it from scratch and give it a new name, free of Internet Explorer’s negative connotations?

But Microsoft have a tricky puzzle to solve. They must work out how to keep their browser up to date with technology, but without breaking websites that were designed to work with their older browsers.

Microsoft, with its reliance on enterprise customers for so much of its business, can’t afford its software upgrades to essentially break websites. So many web apps and intranets were designed to work in IE6. If a company decides to upgrade to a new version that totally breaks its intranet, Microsoft would soon find itself in the bad books.

Compatibility view only made things worse

Microsoft’s solution was valiant but flawed attempt at solving this puzzle. Compatibility view is an option that allows the user to switch between various display modes. One mode interprets the code in the way most modern browsers would. Another interprets it more like the way older versions of Internet Explorer would.

While it’s a good idea in theory, in practice it has just added more complexity to the situation. Most users probably have no idea the option even exists (and let’s face it — Internet Explorer users are probably the least likely to ever experiment with any such settings). In some situations the option doesn’t even appear. It sometimes defaults to compatibility view, with no way of switching it off.

This makes debugging webpages in Internet Explorer even more of a nightmare. If a page is broken, not only do you need to work out what version of IE it is, but also what mode. Then you have to fix it in all views — oh, and without breaking it in any other browser or any other version or mode of Internet Explorer. In a word, nightmare.

What is the solution?

It is becoming apparent that not only is this sort of problem infuriating to web developers, but the end users are also becoming pretty tired of it. They are leaving Internet Explorer in their droves.

So, what can Microsoft do about it? Of course, if I knew the answer, I wouldn’t be a chump writing blog posts about it. But it seems to me that the only way for a Microsoft browser to be a truly modern browser is to have a complete fresh start. It needs to give up trying to contort itself to support webpages designed for older versions.

Microsoft need a new browser. It needs to be new from the ground up to solve the technology problem. It probably also needs a new name to rid itself of its terrible image problem.

If need be, perhaps Internet Explorer could perhaps live on as a legacy webpage viewer. Explaining this to customers might be easier said than done. But unless Microsoft do something soon, they might not have many browser users left anyway.

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