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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"Larger enterprises will work with Microsoft to identify approaches to handle this," added Hilwa. "It is in the embedded and branch [office] settings that I worry the most about disruption."

Miller was sympathetic to the plight of enterprises caught up by Microsoft's decision. But he also contended that the Redmond, Wash. company had little choice.

"I've heard of many companies that say Windows 7 and IE9 will be the next XP and IE6," said Miller, of those firms' desire to standardize on older technologies, a common practice. "What Microsoft's doing is really trying hard to keep that from happening. IE is going forward and customers are expected to keep up."

The alternative, Miller argued, was a situation where Microsoft was held back by having to support older browsers, an "immensely burdensome" situation, as he described it, that could translate into losing those customers who want innovation and progress from their software vendors. "In this world, Microsoft risks losing customers if it doesn't keep up with rivals," Miller said.

That's usually called "between a rock and a hard place."

Yesterday, Microsoft's Capriotti urged commercial customers to adopt IE11 and promised that the backwards-compatibility tool introduced with that browser, dubbed "Enterprise Mode," would be maintained, improved and supported through the retirement date of Windows 7, or January 14, 2020. However, he did not say that the tool would necessarily be supported on IE11, opening the door for future browser support cuts.

Opinions from the experts on Enterprise Mode were mixed. "Generally, yes, it's a credible tool," said Miller. "And there are also third-party solutions."

Silver was less positive that the tool would be sufficient. "Enterprise Mode makes [testing and migration] easier, but organizations don't trust it yet," he said.

How this plays out over the next 17 months is unclear.

Analysts like Miller and Hilwa were right in pointing out that it's a different Microsoft now, evidenced on the ground by this week's two announcements of smaller Windows updates that arrive much more frequently, and the browser support contractions. Microsoft didn't back away from its call to retire Windows XP, even under pressure from China's authorities, which some believe may be behind the recent antitrust investigation launched there. It's just as unlikely to retreat from this ruling.

But enterprises are Microsoft's bread and butter. Agitating that base may not result in companies abandoning Microsoft's wares -- they have, frankly, nowhere else to really turn -- but it could further alienate them. By definition, angry customers aren't happy customers.

"In the interest of its customers, Microsoft really should have implemented this for Windows 8 and higher, and allowed Windows 7 users to continue having a mix," suggested Silver. "To get customers to stay current, Microsoft needs to make it easy to stay current. That's not the case for IE8, IE9 and IE10 users."

Microsoft has published an FAQ covering the browser support changes.

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.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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