Microsoft Announces New Support Policy for Internet Explorer

Microsoft wants organizations and individuals to use the latest Internet Explorer versions, so much so that it announced some new policy changes today.

The new browser-support policy will take effect after Jan. 12, 2016. After that date, Microsoft will only provide security patches and technical support for the most current IE browser per a particular supported operating system.

Consumer users typically use Windows Update to automatically upgrade IE, so the new policy is less of a concern for them. However, some organizations support their internal business applications using older IE technologies. They may face additional tracking burdens as a consequence of Microsoft's new IE policy guidelines.

The key to understanding Microsoft's new IE policy is the "supported" OS part. A "supported" OS typically means a Windows version that has not exited from Microsoft's "extended support" lifecycle product phase -- that is, the OS is less than 10 years old. Microsoft's OS lifecycle support for businesses is typically five years of "mainstream support," followed by five years of extended support. After the extended support phase ends, Microsoft considers the OS to be "unsupported," and it stops delivering security patches for the OS. Internet Explorer's product lifecycle is tied to the Windows OS it runs on when the browser code is published.

Latest IE Browsers
Organizations will have to keep track of the latest IE browser releases per supported Windows to ensure that they continue to get security patches for the browser. For example, Windows 7 Service Pack 1 will fall out of extended support on Jan. 14, 2020. However, Windows 7 SP1 supports both IE 10 and IE 11 browsers. With the new policy, Microsoft will stop issuing security patches for IE 10 on Windows 7 SP1 after Jan. 12, 2016. In order to continue to get browser security updates, an organization would have to move to IE 11 by the Jan. 12, 2016 date or seek other measures. It's another complexity for IT pros to track.

Here is a table of the latest IE browsers per supported Windows OSes published by Microsoft:

Latest IE browsers per supported Windows
Latest IE browsers per supported Windows. Source: Microsoft IE blog.

The new IE support policy also applies to Windows Embedded OSes. Microsoft has published an IE lifecycle policy FAQ that provides a full list of all of the most current IE versions per supported OS.

Alternatives for Orgs
If it's problematic for an organization to upgrade their IE browsers, they can try Microsoft's Enterprise Mode for IE 11, which emulates older IE 8 browser technologies on IE 11 running on Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. Another option is to use third-party browser compatibility solutions, such as those offered by Browsium. The last, and perhaps most expensive, option for organizations stuck on older IE versions would be to set up support agreements through Microsoft Services.

Microsoft has tended to release a new IE browser version with each new major Windows OS release. That policy apparently isn't changing.

"The latest version of Internet Explorer will continue to follow the component policy, which means that it follows the lifecycle and is supported as long as the Windows operating system on which it is installed," a Microsoft spokesperson clarified, via e-mail.

Microsoft issues Windows OS updates more frequently now, such as biannually vs. its more traditional release cycle of the past, which typically had intervals of years between service pack releases. Microsoft's August 12 update to Windows 8.1 is slated to deliver minor functional changes to the OS, but IE 11 also will get a new security enhancement at that time that can protect against outdated ActiveX installations.

The message for IT organizations with this new IE policy seems to be that they should keep IE browsers up to date by turning on the Windows Automatic Update service for end users. However, some organizations might not be able to go that route. If so, those organizations will have to track OS and browser versions to ensure continued security update support. They may also need some support to get by.

"Certainly, there will be more pressure to do migrations faster because of this policy change," commented Gary Schare, president of Browsium, and a former executive heading Microsoft's IE management team, in a phone call. "Therefore, enterprises will be looking for solutions. Some can migrate pretty quickly, and some can't. From Microsoft's perspective this totally makes sense that they do this. They've been so forgiving of backward compatibility in the past. They've been leaving legacy operating systems and browsers around such that the problem just perpetuates itself."

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.


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