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Microsoft's IE 11 'Enterprise Mode' Aims To Break Old Habits

One of the features that IT pros will see this week with Microsoft's newly updated Internet Explorer 11 browser will be a new "Enterprise Mode."

An IE 11 browser running Enterprise Mode can automatically switch to emulate older Microsoft browser technologies, such as IE 8 technology, without requiring an action from an end user, if it's set up to work that way. As described by Microsoft, Enterprise Mode potentially could ameliorate upgrade problems associated with older IE technologies.

IT shops may have been running to keep up with Microsoft's past cycles of releasing an operating system every three years (now accelerated to once a year), but Microsoft typically has included a new version of IE with those OS releases, too. As such, keeping pace on the IE side may become difficult.

IE 11's Enterprise Mode is included in the Windows 8.1 operating system update that was released on April 8. Windows 7 users also got an updated IE 11 browser with Enterprise Mode at that time, according to Microsoft's announcement. In addition, Windows Phone 8.1 users will be getting the IE 11 browser for the very first time on their smartphones sometime this month or in May.

The updated IE 11 browser will contain a few new feature enhancements. It can detect devices and adjust its page views for both small-screen smartphones and large-screen desktop PCs. IE 11 comes with developer enhancements, such as improved UI, Memory and Debugger tools, that can be accessed from the browser via the F12 key. IE 11 also makes use of the WebGL standard for two-dimensional and three-dimensional graphics by tapping into a system's graphics processing unit.

Microsoft Commits with Enterprise Mode
Enterprise Mode in IE 11 is undoubtedly the most important feature for organizations trying to keep pace, especially when they have corporate Web sites and Web apps based on older IE technologies. Microsoft may at last be trying to address a major pain point for its business customers, a point it seemed to acknowledge.

"Enterprise Mode for Internet Explorer 11 may not fix all compatibility problems, but does work for many of the most common issues," Microsoft explained in a blog post. "Most importantly, this is an area of continued investment for Microsoft and is a significant step towards helping customers stay up-to-date with the latest version of Internet Explorer."

Enterprise Mode is also conceived as a way for Microsoft to break the dependencies that organizations may have for continuing to use IE 8. According to Microsoft, organizations "chose to standardize on Internet Explorer 8 to help ease the migration to Windows 7." IE 8 was the last version of Microsoft's browser that was supported on the now unsupported Windows XP OS.

In theory, with IE 11 Enterprise Mode, it's possible to have the performance and security benefits of using Microsoft's newer browser without having to remediate corporate Web apps based on older IE 8 technologies. Enterprise Mode specifically provides a "compatibility view" for IE 8-based sites and apps and it may also support older technologies, such as IE 7, according to Microsoft. It does so by "replicating the original Internet Explorer 8 user agent string" and mimicking IE 8's ActiveX responses. It also dispenses with "some vestiges of proprietary functionality" in IE 8, per Microsoft. Lastly, Enterprise Mode turns off some IE 11 features that don't work when emulating older IE browser technologies. For instance, an improved tab-switching capability in IE 11 doesn't work right with IE 8-based technologies.

IT pros get some controls over the use of Enterprise Mode. For instance, they can specify whether end users can use the Enterprise Mode feature or not. It's also possible to use Group Policy to designate which sites will run with Enterprise Mode turned on and which sites won't. IT pros can also harvest end user stats on when they used Enterprise Mode and then use that information to build a list. That sort of management gets carried out using Microsoft's free Enterprise Mode Site List Manager tool, as described in this Microsoft TechNet article.

Potential Limitations
It all sounds good, but Enterprise Mode in IE 11 is still just a new solution to an old problem. One company that has specialized in picking up the IE compatibility pieces for years is Redmond, Wash.-based Browsium. The company produces a Web app remediation and browser management solution called "Ion," along with a management solution for using multiple browsers called "Catalyst."

Browsium took a somewhat different approach with Ion (formerly called "UniBrows"). Ion freezes a Web app in its last known good state and uses the original support files to make things run, according to a description by Gary Schare, Browsium's president and chief operating officer. Schare is a former Microsoft veteran who led the launch of IE 7 before joining the Browsium team.

Browsium has looked at IE 11's Enterprise Mode, said Matt Heller, Browsium's CEO and founder. In his opinion, Enterprise Mode can't address all customer scenarios.

"We are excited to see Microsoft stepping up and helping address the complexities of application compatibility," Heller said, via e-mail late last week. "While we believe it will fix some customer scenarios, Enterprise Mode is not likely to help customers with complex line-of-business ERP and CRM issues."

Heller specifically addressed Microsoft's technical approach with Enterprise Mode.

"The scenarios we deal with need more than setting User Agent strings and spoofing values to ActiveX controls," he wrote. "Enterprise Mode won't be able to fix anything where the ActiveX controls aren't supported on a given platform, or the controls rely on different window/tab models, which are very common scenarios we see in our customers."

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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