Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) looks like it will be a fantastic browser—easily Microsoft's best offering yet. And it's due to be released upon the world at any time soon, with betas already in use by real people. Only, despite everything that IE9 promises, I'm finding it hard not to be soured by its upcoming release, as I can't help but see it as part of an overall failure by Microsoft within the browser market.
IE9 and Standards Compliance
Make no mistake: IE9 proves that the Internet Explorer team can listen and deliver when it comes to standards compliance. No matter how skeptical you might be of Microsoft's claims that they're taking compatibility seriously, it's hard to ignore the fact that IE9 is doing a fantastic job of providing support for up-and-coming HTML5 features and capabilities—as disclosed by the W3C (even if there was some controversy about what the results actually meant or indicated).
Standards Compliance Isn't a Theoretical Goal
But no matter how great IE9's standards compliance, I just can't get excited about IE9. Instead, thinking about the release of IE9 evokes feelings more akin to frustration—especially when it comes to having to support yet another browser from Microsoft.
Right now, having to support IE6, IE7, and IE8 is already enough of a pain in the butt, since each of those browsers renders websites differently. And as great as IE9 is going to be, it's going to implement a new version of the IE rendering engine —which will result in "yet another" set of behaviors, hacks, tweaks, and rendering issues.
So, as exciting as it is to see Microsoft do a great job of focusing on standards compliance with IE9, attaining true standards compliance isn't merely a theoretical goal—nor is it simply about winning awards or having tidy marketing charts that make you look better than the competition. Instead, the true goal of standards compliance should be about making it easier for web developers (and the businesses that pay them) to create and deliver web content—without getting mired down in the need to support lots of different rendering engines.
Yet despite all the gains that IE9 will bring to the table, Microsoft will still end up failing when it comes to helping businesses and web developers spend less money, time, and effort on creating web content. Why? Because as great as IE9 will be at delivering when it comes to standards compliance (or cheaper development efforts), Microsoft is still going to officially support IE6 until 2014.
Standards Compliance and Market Share
As I covered in my article "IE, Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari: Look Out New Browser Wars Loom", Internet Explorer looks like it's poised to control roughly 50 percent or more of the browser market in the near future. Only, if you do a bit of digging into that "control"' of the market, you'll see that IE6 controls anywhere from 6 percent to 16 percent of the overall browser market, IE7 controls roughly 12 percent of the market, and IE8 controls another almost 30 percent of the market.
In other words, some of IE9's biggest competitors will end up being IE6, IE7, and IE8. Yes, it's great that IE9 will be more standards compliant. But that doesn't really mean anything if 20–30 percent of the web is left using older versions of Internet Explorer (IE7 and IE8) that aren't as compliant as IE9, or which, frankly, suck when it comes to standards (yes IE6, I'm looking RIGHT at you).
And, if you think I'm being a bit too dramatic about how hard it is to support multiple versions of IE, just take a look at Microsoft's own marketing—where they juxtapose IE8's crap-tastic support of upcoming HTML5 features and specifications against IE9. As their own graphs show, IE9 and IE8 are radically different browsers. Yes, IE7 and IE8 render relatively close to each other—but both IE7 and IE8 (to say nothing of IE9) are radically different from IE6—which debuted in 2001.
Microsoft Needs to Kill IE6 (and IE7 and IE8)
While I'm sure that the IE Team is serious about trying to achieve true standards compliance with IE9, the fact that Microsoft will let IE6 linger around, fully supported, until 2014 shows that Microsoft, as a company, just does not "get it" when it comes to the true cost of compliance. In Microsoft's defense, they're trying to ensure that larger businesses and organizations that invested significant amounts of money and effort in Windows XP and sites targeted directly toward IE6's idiosyncrasies don't end up being a liability. The only problem with that approach, though, is that it lays the expense of supporting those users and businesses at the feet of web developers and businesses today.
Consequently, if Microsoft were serious about compatibility, they'd figure out a way to retire IE6 (and then IE7 and IE8) more rapidly—instead of letting older versions of their browsers continue to compete with their current offerings. (Note in this graph how Chrome has done such a great job of making sure that previous versions of Chrome are just a blip—or nonexistent.)
A Magical Solution?
Of course, just because most web developers think that supporting IE6 into 2014 is patently absurd doesn't mean that Microsoft can simply renege on its promise to continue to support customers on IE6 and XP into the future.
And I'm not advocating that Microsoft simply ditch former customers for my convenience or to decrease development costs for businesses today. Instead, I'm advocating a "magical" solution that Microsoft could pull off if it were really inclined. For example, Microsoft could acquire Browsium, then update Browsium's Unibrows solution to run with IE9 (and/or IE8). Not only would such a move make it tons easier for organizations to continue to run their own crappy IE6 apps internally, but they'd then be able to free the rest of us from needing to help them support their own, internal, IE6 dependencies. My guess is that Microsoft would also see an increase in sales of Windows 7 without any real/huge complaint from organizations about being "forced" to upgrade.
But make no mistake, until Microsoft offers some sort of solution to address this problem, and until the company is able to address how its own control of a majority of the browser market is fractured over three (and soon to be four) versions of its browser, I just can't get that excited about IE9 coming on to the field.
In fact, accounting for IE6, IE7, and IE8 right now is already headache enough as it is. If I could get rid of one of those headaches (preferably IE6), then I would easily be excited about IE9. But, as it stands, Microsoft currently lacks the vision and ability to remove any of those headaches from the fray with the release of IE9, so I'm actually finding it hard not to be depressed about supporting yet another version of Internet Explorer when IE9 is released upon the world.
Michael K Campbell ([email protected]) is a contributing editor for SQL Server Magazine and a consultant with years of SQL Server DBA and developer experience. He enjoys consulting, development, and creating free videos for www.sqlservervideos.com.