Microsoft: Breaking up with IE 6 hard to do

The software maker has released two versions of its browser in the last few years, but in many ways its image remains tied to its 2001-era product.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read

It's been roughly eight years since Microsoft released Internet Explorer 6, but in many ways the company is still very much tied to the aging product.

Although Microsoft has released two major versions of Internet Explorer in the past couple of years, for many, the face of Internet Explorer is still IE 6 in all its tabless glory.

In large part, that's because many of Internet Explorer's users are the ones who tend not to change the browser that comes with their operating system--either because that's the type of consumer they are, or because they are working on a work machine in which they are not able to upgrade to a later version of IE or switch to another browser.

Amy Barzdukas, the general manager for Internet Explorer, said in an interview this week that Microsoft's perception is "being built by a browser that was fine technology eight years ago or a decade ago."

But that's frustrating, particularly since Microsoft has invested a fair amount of effort in the last couple of years trying to rebuild IE after letting it languish for several years. Microsoft added things like tabbed browsing and a phishing filter back with Internet Explorer 7, which debuted in October 2006, and earlier this year launched Internet Explorer 8, with anti-malware features as well as a private browsing option and improved standards support.

Even with that work, though, IE 6 remains not only the most widely thought of version of Internet Explorer, but also the most widely used version of the browser, at least by a narrow margin. According to Net Applications, IE 6 accounts for 27 percent of the browser market, compared to 23 percent for IE 7. Microsoft's new IE 8 has more than 12 percent of the market, while Firefox 3.0--the most widely used version of that product--has 16 percent (See chart below).

Net Applications

Overall, Microsoft has been losing ground for several years to Firefox and other browsers. After reaching near ubiquity in the post-Netscape era, IE's global market share is now less than 70 percent. However, Barzdukas is hopeful that the trend is starting to shift with the release of IE 8.

"To the extent that IE was losing share over the winter, any rate of loss has substantially slowed since we came out with IE 8, and in some geographies IE overall has actually gained significant share," Barzdukas said.

One of the biggest things that could help Microsoft, Barzdukas said, is if more people understood that there were better browser options available from Microsoft. She has taken part of that task upon herself, making a pest of herself when she is at friends' houses for dinner--checking to see what version of the browser they are using.

A growing chorus of Internet users have asked Microsoft why, if it really wants people to move to IE 7 or IE 8, it doesn't just end support for IE 6. After all, there have been plenty of calls for the death of IE 6, particularly from Web developers, who are weary of the work required to make their sites work in multiple versions of Internet Explorer, as well as Safari, Firefox, and other browsers.

IE 6
For many, Internet Explorer 6, is still the face of Microsoft's browser, even though the product has been updated twice in recent years.

While in many ways, Microsoft would like that too, it is a bit of a double edged sword, since some number of IE 6 users might consider a rival if they were to switch browsers at all.

But Microsoft officials insist they simply can't end support for IE 6, since it shipped as part of Windows XP and Microsoft has pledged to business customers that it will support that operating system--and its components--for some years to come.

"Many PCs don't belong to individual enthusiasts, but to organizations," Internet Explorer chief Dean Hachamovitch said in a blog posting this week. "The people in these organizations responsible for these machines decide what to do with them. These people are professionally responsible for keeping tens or hundreds or thousands of PCs working on budget."

There, IE's fate is tied largely to broader patterns of Windows adoption. Barzdukas said most businesses won't move to a new version of IE unless they move to a new version of Windows that has a newer browser built in. So as many corporations have stuck with Windows XP, so too have they stuck with IE 6.

Beyond the question of adoption of later versions, there is also the question of whether IE doesn't need an even more radical facelift, particularly in the era where the browser is used as an engine to run applications as much as it is a tool to move from Web site to Web site.

In large part, the shifting nature of the browser is what led Google to develop its Chrome browser, and now its Chrome OS, which posits that most computing tasks these days can be done from within the browser.

Microsoft is also at least exploring the possibility that the browser might need a more significant overhaul. Its research unit has a prototype called Gazelle. In an exclusive interview last month, researcher Helen Wang told CNET News that browsers need to act more like an operating system, taking a greater role in determining which Web processes get priority in accessing a computer's resources.

"I think this is the right way to go and I think this can be practical," Wang said. "It will also take a lot of work."

For her part, Barzdukas was mum on where Microsoft is headed with Internet Explorer 9 and beyond.

"As is the case with much work (Microsoft Research) does...they are often pushing us to think in new ways, which is part the reason we have them around."