IE 6 and the Dark Side of Success

As with many behind-the-scenes Hollywood dramas, tech industry success stories often come with a dark side. In the late 1990s, for example, Microsoft worked to improve the overall quality of its Windows NT family of products, hoping to move beyond the workgroup computing realm and into the more lucrative enterprise market. But in succeeding beyond its wildest dreams, Microsoft also encountered a curious counter to this success: Enterprises expect the software solutions they purchase to last and last and last, and as a result, the software giant has had to extend support for its aging systems far beyond the original expiration dates.

Windows XP is, of course, the most obvious and extreme example of this issue. Released at the height of Microsoft's market power -- and the nadir of its US antitrust troubles -- XP is now a decade old. It came laden with a number of issues, although most, such as the UPnP bug that tarnished the product's launch, were fixed long ago and are mostly forgotten. What's stuck around, like the smell of overly pungent cheese, however, are some key XP technologies that, like the OS itself, simply won't die.

It's a serious problem. Microsoft has recently claimed that there are over 1.3 billion active users of Windows worldwide, making this the most widespread and successful technology platform on earth. Between 350 million and 400 million new PCs are sold every year, and roughly 90 percent of those come with a Windows license of some kind. And although most of those PCs, of course, ship with Windows 7, Microsoft's enterprise customers retain downgrade rights. And some, believe it or not, are still installing XP.

In fact, from a usage share perspective, XP is still roughly neck-and-neck with Windows 7, depending on which market researchers you choose. (Some even place XP decidedly ahead.) This is problematic from a number of perspectives. From Microsoft's perspective, it hampers the company's ability to push more modern platforms and technologies, and this is surely a concern for the next OS release, Windows 8, which is as forward-leaning as anything the software giant's ever created. For users, this means that app and web developers must target the least-common denominator, with the result being that most applications and websites aren't as technologically advanced as they could be.

Enterprises stick with XP for a few reasons, but one the big ones a decade in is compatibility. And although Microsoft has made huge strides in application compatibility in both Windows 7 and Windows Vista, it's done little in the way of web app/site compatibility, choosing instead to direct customers to expensive and complex virtualization solutions to meet this need. And it's been pushing an initiative to kill off both XP and Internet Explorer (IE) 6, the browser that ships with XP, because it's insecure, out of date, and doesn't adhere to modern web standards.

In fact, Microsoft's Stephen Rose just blogged about the pending expiration of XP support -- it crossed the 800-day milestone over the past weekend -- and Microsoft recently claimed that overall IE 6 usage in the US fell below 1 percent. This is good news. But the truth is, millions of people, almost all in enterprises and other businesses, are still saddled with this dated, insecure browser. By Microsoft's own estimates, almost two thirds of enterprises still use XP in some capacity. That's close to 500 million PCs worldwide, according to some estimates.

Last year, I wrote about a third-party effort to close the web app compatibility gap in " Solving IE 6 Site Compatibility Issues When Microsoft Won't." That solution, called Browsium, offers an elegant way to simultaneously use multiple versions of of the IE rendering engine, Flash, and Java, all at the same time, in the same browser. But the original Browsium version came with what turned out to be an easily overcome downside: It required users to download various IE components from Microsoft's website and it raised the specter of a possible Microsoft backlash against a solution that, frankly, ran counter to theĀ  message Microsoft wanted customers to hear.

This week, Browsium announced a follow-up to its original product that overcomes the possible issues of its predecessor. And if web app/site compatibility issues are still preventing a migration to more modern Windows technologies, you should take a look. Called Browsium Ion, this new version builds on a year of learnings about how browsers work and can become compatible with older web technologies. And the surprising find is that Browsium doesn't really need the IE 6 rendering engine. Instead, it can deliver even better compatibility results using the native IE 7, 8, or 9 versions and an adapted version of the "Quirks" profile Microsoft itself uses for backward compatibility.

As a result, Browsium Ion is easier for customers to use because there's no upfront need to find, download, and deploy older IE rendering engines. It doesn't run afoul of Microsoft, ending any potential threats. But it works largely as before, allowing businesses to mix and match multiple IE rendering styles, Java versions, and ActiveX versions, on a site-by-site basis. So users can utilize the advanced features of modern browsers on most of the web, but fall back when needed, behind the scenes, to technologies that are compatible with intranet sites, line-of-business apps, and other web solutions that will never be updated. It all happens on the fly and with no end-user interaction, and it's controlled through standard Group Policy settings and a nice, MMC-like management interface.

In the meantime, I'll pay attention to the calendar, the monthly web browser usage statistics, and Microsoft's various blog posts and announcements around these issues. It's interesting to me that XP in general and IE 6 specifically are like house guests who've overstayed their welcome: Although we were happy enough with them at first, we're exasperated to be dealing with them after so much time has elapsed. How rude!

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