Google goes 'Reader' on Chrome Frame, kills plug-in for IE

Enterprise Web app developers cry foul over retirement of plug-in that puts Chrome engine inside older versions of IE

Google Thursday announced the retirement of a 4-year-old plug-in designed to let users of older version of Internet Explorer (IE) run Chrome's browser engine, declaring mission accomplished.

Chrome Frame joins numerous other discontinued Google projects, including much higher-profile departures, like Google Reader earlier this year. Support and updates for Frame will end in January 2014.

Google portrayed Frame's retirement as a positive, saying it had done its job.

"Today, most people are using modern browsers that support the majority of the latest Web technologies," said Chrome engineer Robert Shield in a post to the Chromium blog yesterday. "Better yet, the usage of legacy browsers is declining significantly and newer browsers stay up to date automatically, which means the leading edge has become mainstream."

Google launched Frame in September 2009, a year after the debut of the Chrome browser, casting it as a way to instantly boost the then-slow JavaScript speed of IE, and as an answer to the conundrum facing Web developers when designing sites and Web applications that relied on Internet standards IE didn't then support, such as HTML5.

Chrome Frame runs in IE6, IE7 and IE8. Since then, Microsoft has released both IE9 (2011) and IE10 (2012).

When Google shipped Frame nearly four years ago, IE6 accounted for the largest share of all copies of Internet Explorer: 35%. IE7 and IE8 were third and second, respectively, with shares of 27% and 31%.

As Shield noted, the mix has changed. As of May, IE6's share of all copies of the browser was 11%, while IE7's and IE8's were 3% and 41%. The newest browsers, IE9 and IE10, accounted for 27% and 17%.

Shield urged enterprises that now rely on Frame to switch to Chrome for Business, which offers something called "Legacy Browser Support," a Chrome add-in that automatically launches another browser -- an older version of IE, for example -- when IT-designated URLs are clicked. An optional add-on for IE then automatically switches users back to Chrome.

Others have come up with similar solutions for companies still tied to older versions of IE. Browsium, a Washington state-based vendor, offers both Catalyst, which acts as a traffic cop to open links in specified browsers, while its Ione add-on, formerly called UniBrows, lets enterprises run legacy Web apps designed for IE6 in newer versions of Internet Explorer.

But while Shield characterized the retirement of Chrome Frame as a win -- proof of "just how far the Web has come," he said Thursday -- several Web app developers begged to differ.

"This is disappointing news," said Kathryn Fraser in a comment to Shield's post. "While you are correct in terms of the majority of personal users and their browsers, this doesn't translate to many of the healthcare and education enterprises that our apps are built for. We were only able to recently retire support for IE6 because of the availability of Chrome Frame."

"Chrome Frame was the only way to offer support for our modern Web app to customers who refuse to upgrade from IE7 and IE8," commented Aaron Smith. "It's very disappointing, but understandable, that Google is tossing this to the wayside. It sure leaves me in a bind."

Austin Fatheree was a lot more blunt. "Unreal. You just undid years of my work," he said in a comment late Thursday.

In an FAQ for developers, Google said that while it will stop updating Frame next January, the plug-in will continue to work after that date. "All existing Chrome Frame installs will continue to work as expected," the FAQ said.

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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