What Microsoft's 'fresh start' browser strategy means

A new browser not named 'IE' would give Microsoft ways to leave legacy support behind

Windows 10 on Microsoft Surface PC tablet
Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft will unveil a browser not named Internet Explorer (IE) alongside Windows 10, according to an online report.

Long-time Microsoft watcher and ZDNet blogger Mary Jo Foley cited unnamed sources on Monday to say that the browser would be separate from the existing IE, would sport a minimalist user interface (UI), and would support extensions, sometimes called add-ons, much like Google's Chrome and Mozilla's Firefox.

Separately, Neowin claimed that Microsoft has forked its Trident browser rendering engine to create a more lightweight version that would be called when IE encounters a modern site, one that doesn't require support for older IE standards. In Neowin's scenario, there would not be two different browser UIs; the use of the streamlined Trident engine -- or the existing, backwards-compatible version -- would be automatic and invisible to the user of what the publication thought would be eventually dubbed IE12.

Meanwhile, Foley said that the new browser -- code named "Spartan" -- will be included with Windows 10, perhaps as the default, but will also be accompanied by a refreshed IE11. The latter will be offered for those who need backwards compatibility with older websites and more importantly, older Web apps.

A name other than IE for the new browser would not be a surprise: In August Microsoft hinted that it was thinking of just that. "The discussion I recall seeing was a very recent one [just a few weeks ago]. Who knows what the future holds?" teased Jonathan Sampson of Microsoft in a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" online discussion, while answering a question about a name change to distance the browser from lingering negative perceptions.

In the end, it may not matter whether Microsoft forks the browser into two separate applications or just forks the Trident engine. The result would be the same: One browser/engine that goes forward, another browser/engine that remains static as an option primarily for businesses, the customers who most require compatibility with older sites -- mainly their own intranet domains -- and older Web apps used by their employees.

Microsoft's strategy? To have a fresh start on browsers, and leave the cumbersome legacy support required of IE behind. The browser/engine of the future would be aggressively updated -- as will all of Windows -- while the browser/engine of the past would be maintained but not significantly enhanced.

If that's the idea, Microsoft's abrupt announcement in August that it was forcing users to upgrade to IE11 makes more sense in hindsight. Then, Microsoft told customers that after Jan. 12, 2016, only IE11 would be supported with security updates on Windows 7 and Windows 8.1.

Pushing users toward IE11 could thus be seen as the first announced step -- necessary in 2014 to give customers, particularly conservative corporations, time to make the move -- in a broader plan to deemphasize that version as Microsoft prepared to unveil and aggressively promote a new browser or at least a new browser engine.

According to analytics vendor Net Applications, IE11 accounted for 43% of all versions of IE run in November, making it the most-used edition.

By consolidating users on IE11, Microsoft not only reduces its own support costs -- fewer versions of IE to support -- but prepares customers for a future where only IE11 boasts the kind of backward compatibility necessary for enterprises.

Other promises Microsoft made in August back that speculation, as it pledged that the legacy support tool introduced in April, "Enterprise Mode for Internet Explorer 11," would be maintained, improved and supported on Windows 7 through its retirement date of January 14, 2020. By continuing to maintain Enterprise Mode for IE11, Microsoft would be able to tell companies to standardize on that browser if they needed to support legacy websites and apps. Others would be able to move to the new browser -- if Foley is correct -- or use the new lighter-weight Trident engine, assuming Neowin is more on the mark.

A brand new browser, however, would give Microsoft an advantage over offering two rendering engines within one named IE.

Historically, Microsoft has supported a version of IE until the end of support for the edition of Windows it ran on. Although that policy is now in tatters because of the January 2016 deadline -- IE10's support on Windows 7 was chopped by seven years with that decision -- a new, separate browser as Foley outlined would let Microsoft make even more radical moves.

Other browsers, including Chrome and Firefox, are patched only in their latest versions. Because Google and Mozilla update their browsers every six to eight weeks, users must keep pace or risk running a vulnerable application.

Microsoft may want to follow in their footsteps: In fact, the FAQ dedicated to the January 2016 deadline noted rivals' practices as a reason for those changes. "Focusing support on the latest version of Internet Explorer for a supported Windows operating system is in line with industry standards," the FAQ read (emphasis added).

A newly-named browser would allow Microsoft to change its support policy for that application to match Chrome's and Firefox's. In other words, if Microsoft releases a browser named "Spartan," it might tell customers that they need to run the latest update to receive patches, then update that browser every few weeks. (In 2014, Microsoft patched IE every month.)

For those unable to keep up, Microsoft could point them toward IE11 and its Enterprise Mode, which would presumably be provided with patches as usual. Customers would not need to be running only the latest IE11 update to receive more fixes.

That kind of browser split -- Spartan (or whatever name it's eventually given) on one hand, IE11 on the other -- would match how Microsoft will handle Windows 10: Consumers will receive automatic OS updates, probably monthly, in lieu of occasional upgrades, while businesses will be able to opt for one of two slower tempos.

More information about Microsoft's Jan. 12, 2016, deadline for upgrading to the newest browser for each version of Windows can be found on the company's website.

Microsoft has scheduled a press and analyst event for Jan. 21 in Redmond, where it will unveil the next iteration of the Windows 10 preview. That version will focus on consumer features, and may include the new browser or rendering engine.

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