Microsoft sneak peeks future IE with dev channel

Follows rivals in creating an ongoing preview to spark interest among Web app and site developers

Microsoft on Monday launched a developers' channel of Internet Explorer (IE) that will be regularly updated to give website and Web app designers and developers an early look at what the company plans with its browser.

The move was a first for Microsoft, which has never had an ongoing developer edition. Instead, Microsoft has historically handled its browser like it does Windows: A limited number of previews or betas were issued, each building toward a final release, when the process was discarded until the firm restarted it for the next iteration.

Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC, praised the decision. "The market has changed, and IE is no longer setting the browser agenda," Hilwa said Monday in an interview. "So anything that they do to keep the ecosystem going and [keep] the quality of sites and apps that work with IE high, is good for everyone."

The new Developer Channel -- Microsoft's name for the build -- was reminiscent of how rivals Google, Mozilla and Opera Software cater to developers. Chrome, Firefox and Opera all provide early-build channels with their roughest-edged, or nearly-roughest-edged software. For Chrome, that's the Canary and Dev channels; Mozilla labels its previews as Nightly and Aurora.

Of the top browsers, only Apple's Safari now lacks a developer preview program.

But in the blog announcing Developer Channel, Microsoft didn't reveal how often the new browser will be updated, whether those updates would be automatic or require manual intervention, when the build would graduate to a more polished beta, or even what version of IE it would eventually become, all information that other browser makers provide.

Monday's announcement came just three weeks after Microsoft published a roadmap that spelled out the Web technologies and standards currently supported by IE, as well as those it was considering for future iterations. Microsoft cast Developer Channel as a continuation of the more-transparent strategy.

The IE Developer Channel will run on either Windows 8.1 and Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1), and will be sandboxed in a virtualized environment -- courtesy of Microsoft's App-V client -- that can run alongside IE11. That production-grade browser is a prerequisite for Developer Channel.

Hilwa said it was important for browser makers to give developers sneak peeks because of the fluidity of HTML5. "It's so broad and expansive that it's really impossible to implement everything in HTML5, so browser vendors cherry pick the pieces what they want to implement," he said.

"While Google has been very aggressive in implementing HTML5, at the risk of re-implementing them as they change, Microsoft has been more conservative," Hilwa continued. "So this is a way for Microsoft to keep its developers informed, rather than have them interpret that [Microsoft] is behind all the time. Here, Microsoft is saying, 'We are playing with a lot of things, but we've not chosen to implement them in our production browser.'"

Interestingly, Microsoft pre-empted possible questions about virtualizing other versions of IE in a supporting FAQ. Customers have long wondered why Microsoft doesn't support virtualizing older editions of IE with the App-V client, so that, for instance, enterprises running Windows 8 and IE11 could also run IE8 in a virtualized environment for backwards compatibility with legacy intranet sites and Web apps.

"We have no plans to virtualize older versions of Internet Explorer through App-V Client," Microsoft said in the FAQ. "Instead, we recommend you use the Enterprise Mode feature of Internet Explorer 11."

Developer Channel can be downloaded from Microsoft's website. Users can report problems or offer feedback on the Connect website.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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