Microsoft slashes IE support, sets 'huge' edict for Jan. 2016

Company makes another move that will complicate the lives of its best customers: enterprises

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And with numerous browsers to support, and then even more permutations with not only the OS -- IE8 on Windows Vista and Windows 7; IE9, IE10 and IE11 on Windows 7; and IE10 and IE11 on Windows 8 and 8.1 -- but also integral parts of the company's portfolio, including SharePoint, Microsoft clearly spent considerable time testing patches. Reducing those permutations will benefit Microsoft, Miller said, as will shortening the support lifespan of its software.

The impact of the browser support changes on consumers, the experts agreed, will be minor, as they tend to go along with the ride Microsoft runs. In fact, the company has aggressively driven consumers to adopt the newest versions of IE for years. Starting in early 2012, Microsoft began automatically upgrading customers' copies of IE to the latest available for their operating system: Windows XP users still on IE6 or IE7, for example, were upgraded to IE8.

Auto-upgrades have been successful in pushing large numbers of IE users, presumably consumers for the most part, to newer versions. The same month that Microsoft launched IE11 for Windows 7, the new browser's user share as measured by Net Applications jumped nearly 220%, with another 51% increase within three more months. In eight months, IE11's user share went from 3.3% of all browsers to 16.8%, largely on the back of the automatic upgrade for Windows 7 users.

Commercial customers, however, were always able to dodge the auto-upgrades, either through blocking toolkits or by using their patch management systems, like WSUS (Windows Server Update Services).

End-arounds like that will be moot once Microsoft pulls the patch plug. And that's going to be a problem for enterprises, analysts said.

"Most organizations need to test their applications [against a new browser], and historically many of those applications broke. And many ISVs [independent software vendors] require and only support specific IE versions for their products," said Silver.

Microsoft's slashing of IE support will, at the least, disrupt enterprises and create a backlash, at worst drive some to consider alternatives, like Google's Chrome or Mozilla's Firefox.

"This will irritate enterprise customers," said Miller. "They want to hang on to their legacy [Web] apps."

Hilwa of IDC echoed that, but with a caveat. "Probably there will be pushback, but these steps have to be taken," he said. "I am afraid this is inevitable and it is the right thing to do for Microsoft. [And] I think the way software is being released and updated is changing. Over time, enterprises have to adjust."

Hilwa made two interesting points, both which were echoed by other analysts Computerworld spoke to. "It is the right thing to do for Microsoft," and "enterprises have to adjust," he said.

Those same comments were common prior to the retirement of Windows XP, which was forewarned years in advance but still caught many companies short of having stripped the OS from their networks, for reasons that ranged from the same app compatibility issues that Silver mentioned to lack of time and money.

The fact is that outsiders, including some customers, saw XP's retirement as primarily beneficial to Microsoft -- after all, the company makes relatively little revenue from existing PCs but books the bulk of Windows sales from OEMs that build new machines -- and not themselves. Many were angry and frustrated that they were the ones forced to adapt, which cost them money, not Microsoft.

"I thought Microsoft had learned about 8-10 years ago that pushing people would backfire, but looks like new management, old style," said Edward Tinker, an IT security professional, in an email today. Tinker was reacting to a Computerworld story earlier Friday that reported Microsoft's accelerated release schedule for Windows, and the impact on enterprises.

Tinker could just as well have been talking about the IE support revamp; the two will play out much the same.

"My main concern is that, even with a long lead time [to January 2016], we're talking about businesses who generally need to take long lengths of time for change, often for compliance reasons," said Miller of Directions. "Even with almost a year and a half, enterprises need to get in motion soon. But I think a lot aren't going to, so they'll go through a fire drill, like when they chose to hang on to XP."

IE version distribution
Microsoft will stop patching all versions of Internet Explorer after Jan. 12, 2016 on Windows 7 and Windows 8 except for IE11. That edition accounted for less than a third of all copies of IE used last month. (Data: Net Applications.)
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