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's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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