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​Microsoft rips old IE technologies out of its new Edge browser

The company's new browser will be liberated from ActiveX and other old technologies. That should make Edge more competitive -- and help the Web itself move into the future.

Microsoft wants its Edge browser to be edgy. One new feature lets you annotate webpages, then send them to OneNote or share with your friends.
Microsoft wants its Edge browser to be edgy. One new feature lets you annotate webpages, then send them to OneNote or share with your friends. Microsoft

Showing just how serious it is about giving its Web browser a fresh start, Microsoft has detailed exactly how much of Internet Explorer's technology the company has removed from its new Edge browser -- and it's a lot.

Microsoft's browser has accumulated hundreds of features and abilities over the years. Whatever their merits when introduced, they've become a burden to Microsoft and to Web programmers who must deal with IE's foibles. In recent years, Microsoft has eagerly embraced the standards other browser makers use, but now it's also moving to rip out two decades of accumulated baggage.

Starting with Windows 10, which arrives sometime this summer, Microsoft is moving to a new browser, Edge, and keeping IE around only for the ignominious role of supporting websites that depend on its features. In building Edge out of the core parts of IE, Microsoft so far has excised 220,000 lines of old code and removed more than 300 interfaces that programmers could use in IE but not other browsers. At the same time, Microsoft has added more than 4,200 fixes that make Edge follow the standard behavior of rival browsers, according to a Wednesday blog post from two Edge leaders, Charles Morris and Jacob Rossi.

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Ordinary people likely won't notice most of the under-the-hood changes directly. But in the long run, they're tremendously important for the future of the Web.

That's because the changes liberate Web programmers so they can more easily embrace advanced features without squandering so much time rewriting software just to get it to work in each browser. That means sites and apps on the Web are more likely to be able to tap into newer features like 3D graphics, video and audio chat, push notifications and sophisticated layout.

And a modernized, more secure, faster-moving Edge could help Microsoft attract more users and restore its damaged reputation for browser innovation. Microsoft let IE languish for years after IE6 was released in 2001, and the company has been playing catch-up for a decade as Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari and Google Chrome have chipped away at IE's once-dominant share of usage.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer has lost its dominant share of browser usage over the last three years, according to StatCounter's analysis.
Microsoft's Internet Explorer has lost its dominant share of browser usage over the last three years, according to StatCounter's analysis. StatCounter

According to a tally from one analytics firm, StatCounter, IE's share of browser usage on PCs and mobile devices has slumped from first place three years ago, with 31 percent of usage, to third place today, at 13 percent. NetApplications' NetMarketShare site, which in contrast measures the number of users rather than page views, still has IE in first place, but also shows a decline from 58 percent to 56 percent over the last year for desktop browsers. Both analytics firms have charted steady growth for Chrome, which is now top for StatCounter and second place for NetApplications.

Hard to remove

Adding features to software is an easy choice: people like to be able to do new things. The harder choice for programmers is deciding when it's time to remove features. With widely used software, even features that are well past their expiration date are nevertheless familiar to customers and built in to business processes. For browsers, removing features can mean that websites break.

Internet Explorer has carried a burden of features dating back a decade or even two.

In creating its new Edge browser, Microsoft has removed wide swaths of IE code that involve features the company deems part of the Web's past, not its future. Microsoft

One of the big ones is ActiveX, which let companies write plugins that significantly expanded what the browser could do. You've probably heard of many of these ActiveX plugins: Adobe Systems' Flash Player and Acrobat Reader, Oracle's Java and Microsoft's own Silverlight.

For more than a decade, Web standards advocates have been working to build features directly in to browsers so such plugins wouldn't be needed. It took a long time, but Web standards won out in a definitive come-from-behind victory.

Flash is widely enough used that it's not simple to remove it, though its days are numbered with even Adobe concentrating its resources on Web standards like HTML, JavaScript and CSS. Chrome and Edge have a version from Adobe built in to the browser. Firefox is working on supporting Flash programs by converting them into JavaScript.

PDF support is another important piece. Edge, like Firefox and Chrome, has built-in support for Adobe's file format.

Dumping baggage

Many other features disappearing in the transition from IE to Edge are more obscure, but programmers will be familiar with them.

Some of these technologies are battle scars from the old browser wars of the 1990s. One is VBScript, Microsoft's failed attempt to provide an alternative to JavaScript from rival Netscape. Another is Vector Markup Language, which lost out to Flash for the kinds of graphics used in company logos and many animations. And today, the Scalable Vector Graphics standard provides an alternative to Flash graphics.

But some IE features had a longer history. One of these was "document modes," which let a Web programmer tell IE to behave like a particular past version of itself. In the future, Edge moves to the "living document" approach of its rival browsers. That approach embraces standards that constantly change but that ideally accommodate past methods so older websites don't break.

Overall, by dumping all this baggage from Edge, Microsoft stands to get a browser that's modernized, faster moving, and embraced rather than scorned by developers. It's quite a departure for the company, which earlier touted IE's long feature lifespan as an advantage over rival browsers.

That was out of step with today's Web priorities, though. By shedding the past, Microsoft is helping the Web move into the future.