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.
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.
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.
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.
PDF support is another important piece. Edge, like Firefox and Chrome, has built-in support for Adobe's file format.
Many other features disappearing in the transition from IE to Edge are more obscure, but programmers will be familiar with them.
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.