New browser add-on turns back IE's clock to 2001

Unibrows lets enterprises run IE6 as a tab inside IE8, gives them a way to migrate to Windows 7 without ditching old Web apps

A startup led by people who worked with and at Microsoft on Internet Explorer will soon release an add-on that lets customers run the aged IE6 within the newer IE8 browser.

The Unibrows add-on is aimed at companies that want to move off IE6 -- and the almost-as-old Windows XP -- to 2009's IE8 and a more modern operating system, such as Windows 7, said Matt Heller, the CEO of Washington-based Browsium.

"Companies need something simple that isn't virtualization based," said Heller. "Unibrows renders IE6 inside an IE8 tab without companies' having to change a single line of code in the sites or Web applications."

Even as Microsoft tries to put a stake in the heart of IE6, enterprises find it difficult, expensive and time consuming to dump the old program because IE8 often won't render sites designed specifically for the once-popular IE6, or won't work with IE6-era applications.

According to Gartner Research, IE6 compatibility problems will cause 1-in-5 organizations to take longer than expected or spend more than they budgeted for their Windows 7 migration projects. The problem: Approximately 40% of the Web applications used by companies still running IE6 won't work on IE8, the browser bundled with Windows 7.

Although one of Microsoft's recommended workarounds for enterprises that need to keep running IE6 is to use MED-V, the company's desktop virtualization system, Unibrows does not insert a virtualized version of the old browser into IE8. Instead, Browsium has licensed several DLLs, or dynamic-link libraries from Microsoft, to make the add-on render a site or application just as does a stand-alone version of IE6.

"We run as a local process on the machine," said Matt Crowley, the chief technology officer of Browsium. "[Unibrows] is a child process of IE8 and is triggered based on the rules [administrators have set]." At that point, Unibrows swaps in the IE6 DLLs to render the page or app within the tab.

Crowley was formerly a program manager on Microsoft's IE team, while Heller worked as a consultant for Microsoft on IE issues for more than six years.

The IE6-inside-IE8 add-on supports all the functionality of the real thing, including ActiveX controls designed for IE6, and the old browser's JavaScript rendering.

Company IT administrators can set access to IE6-specific sites and applications via group policies within IE8, giving them complete control over when IE8 mutates into IE6. The add-on works on any version of Windows that supports IE8, including XP, Vista and Windows 7.

Unibrows targets organizations that want to move beyond Windows XP without having to redesign internal sites and revamp Web apps to make them compatible with IE8, said Heller. Some firms that have been beta testing the add-on plan to use it as a temporary stop-gap, while others hope to use it for several years.

One large manufacturing company in the U.K. that's testing Unibrows wants the add-on so it can migrate to Windows 7 now but hold off remaking its mission-critical CRM (customer relationship management) Web application until 2013, said Heller.

"We do see an obsolescence curve for Unibrows," Heller admitted, "but it will be years before organizations won't need IE6."

Microsoft will retire IE6 and its companion OS, Windows XP, from all support in April 2014, when it issues the final security updates for the software.

"But there are always going to be browser compatibility issues," said Crowley, adding that the technology behind Unibrows can be used to create similar add-ons for other browsers to provide backward compatibility with sites and online applications.

According to the latest statistics from site analytics vendor Net Applications, IE6 accounted for 15% of all browsers used last month worldwide. At its pace of decline over the past year, IE6 won't drop under the 10% mark until May 2011, and will still retain a share of more than 5% -- as much as Apple's Safari currently controls -- by this time next year.

Browsium has been beta testing Unibrows since July, and will ship a final version later this month, said Heller. "We're very close to release," he said.

Unibrows will be sold on a per-seat basis for $5 per user per year, said Heller.

More information about the add-on can be found on Browsium's Web site.

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

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