Foley on Microsoft

How Microsoft Is Busting Its Own 'The Browser Is Part of the OS' Myth

For years, Microsoft has insisted that the browser is an integral part of the operating system, yet the company's current strategies with IE 6 and IE 9 make that argument an absurdity.

This column is not going to revisit the oft-debated question of whether Internet Explorer really is part of Windows. That matter is ancient history, a relic of the U.S. Department of Justice versus Microsoft trial that ended more than a decade ago. Authorities allowed Microsoft to continue to bundle IE with every copy of Windows sold.

Nor am I going to dwell on the more-recent European antitrust case that revolved around the same topic. That case, of course, ended with Microsoft agreeing to provide European Union users with a "browser ballot," which makes explicit the fact that they have a choice of browsers.

Instead, I'm going to touch upon the continued pressure on Microsoft by software developers to phase out support for IE6, the browser -- now more than a decade old -- that originally shipped as part of Windows XP.

Microsoft officials wish the company didn't have to support IE6 any more. It's time-consuming, costly and fraught with incompatibilities. But Microsoft can't simply pull the plug on IE6 for the simple reason that many of the company's most powerful business customers are still using it. These customers know IE6 doesn't comply with standards. They know that it's nowhere near as secure as later iterations of IE or some other more recently introduced browsers from Microsoft competitors. But there are some harsh realities surrounding IE6.

Some enterprise users built internal line-of-business applications around IE6 -- and are now stuck with it. Others are planning to run Windows XP into the ground -- or at least until 2014, when Microsoft officially ends support for it. And because IE6 is what's built into XP, that's what these companies are going to allow their users to run. Still, other firms have opted to use IE6 as a kind of blocking tool. They're counting on the Microsoft legacy browser to fail to work with some popular sites, such as Facebook, Google Docs and Google Reader, and serve as a passive-aggressive way to prevent their users from accessing these sites on their work machines and on the company's dime.

Microsoft has insisted that its browser is part of Windows, and, ironically, that's coming back to haunt the company. Customers can mix and match different versions of IE with different versions of Windows. In other words, you can run IE8 on Windows XP. (You won't be able to run IE9 on XP, however; the 'Softies do have some limits.) But Microsoft has done very little to get this message out there. I'd argue this is because it makes plain the absurdity of the company's claims that IE is part of Windows.

But I do see a subtle shift happening. The IE team -- which usually ships a stand-alone version of its latest browser a few months ahead of a new version of Windows -- is expected to continue along this trajectory. That means IE9, expected by many company watchers in 2011, will likely be released a few months ahead of Windows 8. If this pattern continues, the concept that the browser is separate from the operating system will take hold.

Already there seems to be a growing recognition among some 'Softies and their enterprise customers that IT professionals need to treat browsers as part of their overall IT plan when it comes to managing, deploying or upgrading their infrastructure. Because of the growing number of Web applications out there, IT pros are taking browsers more seriously. Along with users, they're taking more of an active interest in issues such as whether their browser of choice supports HTML5, H.264, VP8 and so on. There's more and more content out there that relies on these evolving standards.

Is your workplace already moving toward considering Windows and browsers as separate entities? I'd like to hear what kinds of consequences your answer has for your organization.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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Reader Comments:

Wed, Jul 14, 2010 Tom

This is not necessarily targeted at anyone here but the problem with this and other tech discussions is that there are far too many people who believe they are truly experts and state hazy beliefs/experience as fact thereby causing others to propagate the unverified data. It seems if someone can write a 'hello world' program then they think of themseleves as gurus/experts in everything IT (and so do their friends who know even less). Why people are so inclined in this manner towards IT and not with other fields such as medicine is beyond me. But the more one learns and investigates, the more one realizes that there is so much more data which missing. Was IE actually an integral part of the OS at the time or destined to be phased in as integral? What would happen if all the IE code were suddenly removed (considering at time=0 and time=18mos later)? How much of the IE code was actually considered IE? Did any of us actually work on the OS and IE team at that time? And if we did could we claim to know every detail of how other teams may have decided to use our routines? Were future patches/service packs slated to leverage some IE routines? What was the grand architectural long term vision like then? Was Microsoft already entrenched in working on the idea of a browser type/based/integrated OS (sound familiar) but then decide not to pursue it? And yes Microsoft has worked on ideas that were way ahead of their time (e.g. NetDocs). In any case who can say for certain? But what I do know is that in my line of work I can not afford to take sides or be subjective, but rather must always let the evidence/data speak for itself. Footnote: I miss the days of Bill Gates...

Wed, Jul 7, 2010 matt

i too work for Fortune 500s. i am at this very moment sitting in an office for top-name-brand bank (Yar!), and what do we use for our browser? IE 6.

Wed, Jul 7, 2010 Steve Stringer Dallas, TX

Speaking as a web developer, the cost of supporting IE6 has been incalculable to my business. With every feature implementation, we go through the process of developing it the "right way" against standards-compliant browsers. Then we embark upon the heart wrenching, hair pulling, unbelievably time consuming process of making said feature work in IE. One can legitimately argue that the continued support of IE6 by Microsoft has cost the web development industry--and by extension, its clients--billions in otherwise unnecessary project costs all because some executive committees at fortune 100 companies don't want to upgrade.

Tue, Jul 6, 2010 Tom

I work on the public web site of a large financial institution that is still on IE 6. Troubleshooting in multiple browsers (and versions) is a way of life. That said, since I can't seem to get anything on the site without final signoff by other departments, everyone (internally) who views my work does so on IE 6. It's *wrong* to the folks I work with if it doesn't look pixel perfect in their browser. Has it held the site back? You bet. And when we redesign the site next year, guess what browser will still need to be supported? In my case, keeping IE 6 around is costing my team money (in development and testing time).

Tue, Jul 6, 2010 davesmall

Microsoft has become the Neanderthal of tech. I have a good friend who is an executive with a major corporation. His rank in the company is sufficient for him to receive the newest computer equipment. Last week he was given a brand new Dell Latitude (top of the line wide screen model). It came pre-loaded with nine year old Windows XP. It's also hamstrung with firewalls and malware. Checking his email requires him to navigate a corporate gateway that is really painful. Thankfully, I'm free of that. There is no IT department in my life. I'm able to make my own purchase decisions which means I could buy a new MacBook Pro with 8GB Memory and an Intel i7 processor. I don't have to mess with Windows, IT, firewalls, anti-malware software or any of that other nonsense. I'm liberated from all of that. Pity my poor friend.

Tue, Jul 6, 2010 Marcos El Malo

There was a time, under Bill Gates, when MS had a killer instinct, and would have dragged their customers along kicking and screaming. They had the balls to back up their technical advantage. Remember when Gates turned the company on a dime and embraced (and predatorily "extended") the web? Like Steve Jobs today, MS was the most successful IT company because Bill Gates was first and foremost a visionary. Not all their initiatives bore fruit, but Gates provided the leadership to push the company in new directions and lead the IT world (sometimes using illegal business practices, but that was an unfortunate side effect of the company's aggressive stance). Under Balmer, MS continues to be a successful company, but is no longer leading. The company lacks a coherent vision to carry it forward, to grow, and to lead. The company continues to innovate, but Balmer isn't doing enough to push those innovations as part of a disciplined overarching strategy. I don't think he has the competence to do this, as Bill Gates did and as Steve Jobs does today.

Tue, Jul 6, 2010 Spark Palos Verdes, CA

@Jody "...having a standard extendible component for rendering HTML for reuse by other system tools and applications does have a certain logic." Yes it does, which makes Microsoft's decision to use Word's html rendering engine for Outlook so baffling and infuriating.

Tue, Jul 6, 2010 matt

@Rick - IE was definitely not a part of Win95. it was distributed as a separate internet-kit add-on. @Narg - the true cause for the anti-trust case was MS threatening to revoke vendors windows licenses if the vendor also bundled a non-IE browser (Netscape) on computers for their customers. MS insisted on IE-only. that strong-arm tactic is against the law. they just used the "we're part of the OS! we can't be replaced!" as a weak excuse afterward. they lost. see European decision.

Tue, Jul 6, 2010 Jody

Your argument is based on a fallacy. Substituting IE8 for IE6 doesn't mean that IE is separate from Windows. IE8 still implements all the internal APIs that the rest of Windows expects to exist as do many third party applications. As someone mentioned, try deleting those IE DLLs from Windows and see how much the OS appreciates it. Of course the binding of IE into Windows was an arbitrary decision, but having a standard extendible component for rendering HTML for reuse by other system tools and applications does have a certain logic.

Tue, Jul 6, 2010 Ted Wood Campbell River, BC

For those that claim that Safari is tied into OS X like IE is into Windows needs a reality check. Safari is merely a client of a system framework called Webkit. Go ahead and delete and things still tick along just fine. But make sure you've installed another browser, because without one, how will you download the browser that you prefer? lol

Fri, Jul 2, 2010 Narg

I still don't see how MS has forced I.E. on users. They have not done such a thing. It is still 100% the users choice to put any other browser on Windows and use it accordingly. I also agree with MS that the OS must have a browser to function 100%. Since MS has I.E. at it's full disposal, then it should be included and does make sense that it is required. All other OSes have broswers bundeled. The browser bundled is at the choise of the OS maker. This whole court business is nothing but pure greed on the part of the governments and users, not on Microsoft.

Thu, Jul 1, 2010

Many, many applications on Windows use IE technology as part of their applications. If you want to say, display help content in HTML without launching a browser, you use IWebBrowser2. In .NET you use the WebBrowser control. All of that is the same stuff that's in IE. Same code. Remove that from Windows and now every application that uses web technology in the OS breaks. Try deleting ieframe.dll and see how much of Windows still works. Same thing on OSX on Apple. If you want to display web content in your app, guess what you use? Safari code.

Thu, Jul 1, 2010 Friiduh

It was in 90's when Microsoft really had IE integrated to the Windows and the Windows parts where replacing the MS-DOS functions in 95 and 98. In those times, if the library what included IE parts, had parts of OS functions, it was technically so that IE was part of the OS. But could it be separated? Sure, no problems at all. But would MS want to do that? Hell no! What is IE? It is a web browser. It is a application program what use programs and libraries. It is not single program but is set of software. If one software what builds IE is part of the OS, then the IE is part of the OS. But you can find the IE functions what are and what are not part of the OS. Like you could see that HTML engine (Trident) is part of library what has OS functions on it as well (like TCP/IP stack). Today Microsoft has placed NT (it is the operating system in Windows today, since Windows XP, what was the software system what ended the MS-DOS and NT series and left only the NT series alive) in diet in project MinWin where from NT was removed all the linked codes what did not belong to the OS. They managed to drop the memory usage of the NT to over 40 megabyte. They managed to get the more clear structure to the OS. While NT is server-client architectured OS, they used technology to protect their markets as well. Just by integrating non-OS functions to the OS so they could say in cort "impossible". And NONE of those says that MS could not have ported IE from NT to other OS's like XNU and Linux (XNU is the OS of the Mac OS X, in that time they had other OS as XNU is done only for OS X series while Mac System 9 and earlier had different OS. XNU is operating system and not a kernel. XNU's kernel is Mach 3.0 microkernel) You only needed to separate needed libraries and programs and then port them. Then install those to the other software system what other OS was running and you got the IE to that system. Nothing special. It is almost like taking chapter of the book and give it to someone else, it is still the chapter (IE) but it is not anymore software system (Windows). And today MS could not survive anymore from same such court. There is too much technical experts today and especially when MS has opened Windows source to the governments like US government. They would not need to ask sources from MS but they could easily just use their own copies (even that they have NDA etc)

Thu, Jul 1, 2010 Panama

You forget that the whole 'part of the os' argument came about the Anti-trust suit, it probably came out in a brainstorming session between techies and lawyers and it of course has little tech foothold.

Thu, Jul 1, 2010 Mark Turn around, I'm right behind you!

While your article makes an interesting argument overall, I was actually much more interested (in a morbid fascination sort of way) by the concept that some companies actually decide to continue using IE 6 as a BLOCKER software?! I mean to me the potential security risks of using IE after version 6 came out FAR outweighed any concerns people might raise regarding the potential for lost productivity time that might occur due to people checking their personal e-mails or whatever else they want to do... I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised about this as companies who have Sysadmins and/or Managers who actively support the use of Windows in the corporate environment really aren't that intelligent regarding security issues in general, but still...

Thu, Jul 1, 2010

This is not technically correct. There can be only "1" browser whose behavior can be relied upon by the operating system. In operating systems such XP, Windows server 2003 rely up browser hosted mechanisms to provide OS update (windows update). Please try it out with a non-IE browser. So the argument is not correct.

Thu, Jul 1, 2010

I have been writing software since 1977. During that case a decade ago it was quite clear to anyone with a clue about software that Internet Explorer was NOT part of the Windows operating system other than the fact that it shipped on the same CD. Claiming it could not be removed was disingenuous on Microsoft's part. Even today the ignorance of software technology that Microsoft exploited persists. Did you know that even today, some people still believe software is something more than mathematical algorithms? Its a fundamental concept. Yet in the Bilski case before the SCOTUS, Stevens' concurring opinion was not the majority opinion. We've almost educated ourselves out of the idiocy that Microsoft has been exploiting since it began. Almost. 5 out of 9 people on the Supreme Court still don't grasp that computer software is nothing more than mathematical algorithms. Just one short of a majority.

Thu, Jul 1, 2010

Good article ! Working with NT and XP Embedded at the time those claims were made about Explorer, I knew it was nonsense. I used MS's own tool to remove IE. Granted there were some minor side effects (like the loss of a couple performance counters) but it worked. This is just all business, making any statement for profit, and as a company they have no interest or ability to act ethically (though many of there employees do).

Thu, Jul 1, 2010 Robert

"Microsoft has insisted that its browser is part of Windows," and it has _always_ been a lie. Come on, they even built IE for the Mac back in the day! It was a fiction they used to bundle a browser with their PC-dominating operating system so they could crush Netscape back in Browser War I. Some people still use IE6 out of sheer ignorance, but the people who "built internal line-of-business applications around IE6" made serious missteps themselves, and now they will pay for their short-sightedness. They have had a decade to make revisions and keep up, but they haven't done it -- and that's a mistake in any IT area.

Thu, Jul 1, 2010 Rick

Microsoft made the claim that the browser was part of the operating system OVER 10 YEARS AGO. That was Windows 95/98 and IE4/5 days. I cannot confirm this anymore, but back then it was probably true that the browser was part of the OS. Windows XP and IE6 were released 3 years later - a few MAJOR OS releases and browser versions later. Of course Microsoft had already started to uncouple these two things. Even if this weren't the case, why wouldn't you be able to upgrade a module (e.g., a web browser) of your operating system from one version to another? It makes perfect sense that it would be possible to upgrade a browser that is part of the operating system.

Thu, Jul 1, 2010

The ridiculous claim was when Microsoft said they could not unbundle Internet Explorer from Windows OS. This article is only pointing out to those ignorant enough to believe that claim 10 years ago that we now have proof of the claim's ridiculous-ness straight from the unscrupulous company that made it in the first place. Microsoft took advantage of the general public's ignorance of software technology, as well as that of those in the judicial system. It continues to bank on that ignorance to this day. The good news is that education is happening, at least in the judicial system, and the ignorance that Microsoft continues to exploit is slowing being replaced with knowledge and truth. The EU is way ahead of us here in the U.S. in removing the sand from around it head. This article is one small step forward in discrediting Microsoft as a source of truth in software technology because it reminds us of yet another instance where they exploited the ignorant for their own gain.

Thu, Jul 1, 2010

Just because web enablement is part of the windows platform, providing updated versions of the technology does not prove anything is absurd or busting any myths. Yes, we all knew that windows didn't "require it", just as much as you don't require passenger seats in your car; good to have so that everyone doesn't create their own seats. I'm a linux fan, but can't stand this ridiculous claim.

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