Five years ago, Microsoft embarked on a campaign to rehabilitate Internet Explorer, which suffered from a poor reputation as the slow, old browser that didn't support the latest standards. Nowadays IE supports many more standards, performance is better and fewer people use outdated versions of the product. What's more, Microsoft is again helping to chart the future of the Web.
But there's still a long way to go.
In a recent ask-me-anything (AMA) chat on Reddit, for instance, IE developers expressed their desire for more frequent updates from Microsoft, pointing to more rapid refreshes of Google's Chrome and Mozilla's Firefox. Some developers said they even considered renaming the browser so their software wouldn't be associated with IE's uneven reputation.
"I would really love to see us be able to ship at a quicker cadence," said Greg Whitworth, a member of IE's platform team responded at one point. "This would allow us to address issues (and add new features) we find in a more timely manner. We're getting there, but we admittedly still have a ways to go."
This isn't a debate over aesthetics. Modernizing IE is crucial for Microsoft as the dominance of Windows wanes. Even though a lot of developer attention has shifted toward mobile apps for Apple's iOS and Google's Android operating systems for tablets and phones, most Internet users still head to the Web to find information and use online services. The Web is becoming something of an operating system unto itself. In fact, the term the "Web platform" has come into vogue as Internet browser makers try to reproduce the features available to programmers writing for PC or mobile operating systems.
Starting with IE9, Microsoft's browser has indeed dramatically improved, said Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder, but among consumers, it's Google's Chrome browser that still attracts the attention.
"Microsoft has made some strides improving the product, making it more friendly to people, but the mantle of innovation around browsers sits with Google," Gownder said. "It's function of consumer choice. Part of that is reputation and part of that is the performance of the product."
In its heyday more than a decade ago, IE accounted for more than 90 percent share of browser usage. It's since lost much of that influence, first to Firefox and Chrome on PCs and now in the mobile market to Apple's Safari and Google's browsers.
NetApplications' usage share analysis gives IE 58 percent of usage on desktop machines but just 2.5 percent on mobile devices. A different analytics firm, though, which measures usage based on Web page views instead of users, shows IE's desktop use today at a mere 24 percent -- well behind Chrome at 49 percent -- and mobile use at a dismal 2 percent.
Chrome and Firefox ship updates every six weeks, a philosophy that means a steady stream of smaller changes rather than big, infrequent ones. That can be hard for IT managers who want to test software -- and users initially had to get used to the frequent updates -- but it's let browser makers become more flexible. New technologies such as WebRTC, IndexedDB, and WebGL can be supported as they arrive, and if a feature isn't quite done, it can be postponed a month and half without too much of a tardiness penalty.
Microsoft has gradually accelerated its release schedule. IE9 arrived in March 2011, IE10 arrived a year and a half later, and the current IE11 arrived a year after that. A one-year cadence is still slow, but it's blazing fast compared to the five-year gap separating IE6 in 2001 from IE7 in 2006.
With IE11, though, Microsoft began changing IE in smaller ways. In its August update to IE11, Microsoft didn't just patch security holes. "We shipped new F12 Developer Tools, WebGL Instancing Extension, and the groundwork to support WebDriver. We'll continue to use this approach," Microsoft's Jacob Rossi said.
The company also took a page from rivals' rapid-release playbook with the June release of a test version of IE for developers. That lets developers tune their Web sites for what's to come and give feedback.
A new name?
Microsofties have considered retiring the Internet Explorer name, according to team member Jonathan Sampson, who referred to a discussion within the company "just a few weeks ago."
"It's been suggested internally; I remember a particularly long email thread where numerous people were passionately debating it," Sampson said. "Plenty of ideas get kicked around about how we can separate ourselves from negative perceptions that no longer reflect our product today."
Ad for names, an inside joke in tech circles was the only suggestion.
"We briefly considered Ultron, but the lawyers said no," Sampson quipped. "Ultron" refers to a superior but mythical variant of Chrome, an idea fabricated by a purported computer administator to hoodwink a company employee.
The company also plans to improve its extensions system for letting third-party programmers add new abilities to the browser. Extensions were an early competitive advantage for Firefox, and Google's Chrome Web Store has a wide range of extensions, but IE requires extension writers to use the ages-old ActiveX interface and the programming languages ill-suited to the modern Web.
Rossi didn't commit to extensions improvements for IE but said it's "definitely on our radar."
"Longer term, we're very aware that our extensions ecosystem and store could use some love. In our modern browser UI (in the style formerly known as "Metro"), extensions aren't even allowed at the moment," Rossi said. "Part of the problem is that C++/COM just aren't what developers want to build extensions with."
Microsoft is aware of its competitive challenges, but encouraged the Reddit crowd to give Internet Explorer another try.
"The IE we work on is probably not the IE you remember," Sampson said.