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Browsium Updates Tool for Internet Explorer Legacy Issues

Browsium released Ion 3.5 today, with multiple enhancements to the company's browser management and Web app remediation tool.

The Ion 3.5 tool now can suppress the notifications going to end users to upgrade to the latest Java 8 version, which potentially can break Web applications in some organizations. The updated browser management tool also now has controls over Java 8's "unique installation path for each version," which helps ensure that legacy Web apps don't get disrupted. In addition, Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser will have an improved performance running older Java versions with Ion 3.5, according to Browsium's announcement.

Redmond, Wash.-based Browsium makes the Ion and Catalyst browser management tools. The products focus on solving a fundamental problem of many organizations, namely, they have to maintain Web applications while also dealing with shifting browser and Web technologies. The company stepped into an area that's been largely neglected by Microsoft over the years.

Recently, in attempt to address some of these issues, Microsoft announced its Enterprise Mode for Internet Explorer 11, which is a solution that lets IE 11 emulate older browser technologies to address potential Web app and intranet site compatibility issues. It also ramped up the time for organizations to move to IE 11, with a Jan. 12, 2016 deadline, which may not seem too helpful for some organizations.

Clearly, organizations have been getting stuck on older IE technologies. It's a problem for them as well as for Microsoft, which wants Windows migrations to proceed apace. I recently asked Gary Schare, Browsium's president and a former member of Microsoft's product management team for Internet Explorer, for his insights about these kinds of issues. What follows is an edited Q&A.

Q: If Ion lets you run the latest IE browser with unsupported Java code, doesn't that add vulnerabilities to the Web app?

Schare: Let's separate Java-based applications from non-Java-based applications because they're two pretty different worlds. So, with the non-Java applications, what we're doing with our software is just tweaking the settings in Internet Explorer at the granular level. We might let IT inject some HTML, CSS or JavaScript from the client as opposed to changing it on the server as a more convenient way of doing it, but everything is running on the newest version of Internet Explorer. So you're getting all of the benefits of the new secure Internet Explorer platform, along with the ability to run those legacy applications. And so that part is super-secure. No one ever has a question about whether that's an OK way to run legacy applications. Remediating Java-based applications, it turns out, is pretty clean, too. Because of the way Ion works, we can allow both modern and old versions of Java to be exposed to the applications but we manage it so the old version is only exposed to the legacy application that IT knows about. And that proves out to be a very secure model and gives them the best of both worlds. About half of our business is just about Java management in the browser.

Microsoft announced a new Edge browser alongside IE 11 with Windows 10, with the Trident engine used by both browsers getting forked. Will IE become the poor cousin of Edge in terms of code development by Microsoft, causing more compatibility problems down the road?

A couple of background points -- when Edge first was announced, there was very clear messaging from Microsoft that this was a consumer browser; enterprises are still going to use IE 11. They delivered this message at Ignite and elsewhere where they said to enterprises, "You'll be fine with IE 11. It's a very modern browser." You can run the latest modern Web applications. Software-as-a-service apps, they all run great in there. IE 11 is also able to do backward compatibility via Enterprise Mode, and obviously there are third-party solutions like ours that go even deeper. So if you're an enterprise and you stick with IE 11, you're going to be in pretty good shape for some years to come.

So why do they even fork it? What can Edge do that IE 11 doesn't do? By the way, it's important to note that IE 11 will still be getting security patches. But Microsoft will not be adding new Web standards. They're not going to change the features of IE 11 or add features to it. It will stay as is, which will make it more predictable. The other question is, "What will they not do to it?" They're starting to add capabilities around performance, around marking up Web pages and reading modes in Edge. And certainly there's new Web standards that all of the browsers are going to adopt. HTML 6 is on its way. And Edge is where they are going to put all of that -- they're not going to bring these standards to IE 11. And so you will reach a point that enterprises that stick with IE 11 are going to be missing out on things. And maybe the next generation of applications a couple of years down the road are taking advantage of HTML 6 and other things like that -- things that Edge and Chrome and Firefox and other browser that are being advanced are able to do, but IE 11 doesn't -- the last of the Internet Explorer line. And so, at that point, you're into another discontinuity of supporting legacy apps. And then you're back to browser management.

As long as you have a good browser management strategy, you could run Edge alongside IE 11, and make sure your users use the right browsers for the right job, which is what our Catalyst solution does. And so I think that's the way things are going to play out, but IE 11 is probably going to be used in the enterprise for the next decade. Microsoft is not going to put the backward compatibility into Edge.

Microsoft still hasn't come around to having change management tools for the browser, so does that bode well for Browsium?

Yes, in fact change management is really the key. Think about the long-term servicing branch for Windows 10 … there's this whole complexity around Windows 10 servicing that people will learn to deal with as Microsoft evolves their model, and as they learn from customers what works and what doesn't. But Edge in particular is going to be a rapidly advancing browser. Microsoft has said that. It's going to be not just getting security patches. It's going to get new features and they will stream down to end user automatically. Every month or two you might get a whole bunch of new features. We see more change coming, rather than less, so, if you're an enterprise, you might ask, "Well, how the heck am I going to allow this browser to run my business applications if all of sudden Microsoft ships a whole bunch of new features and they just appear?" And what if you have a thousand mission-critical apps? To this, we say, "Bring it on, and we'll provide the tools to handle this."

Why did Microsoft end support for IE 8, 9, and 10 early for organizations with its January browser migration deadline?

Our best guess is it was a practical strategy on their part. First, if they're putting so much effort developing Edge, they don't want have a lot of people doing maintenance on all of these older browsers. That's expensive. And Microsoft has done better than any other company on the planet of supporting its older software versions for a long time. Most other companies will just abandon their users and say you have to get an upgrade. Their [Microsoft's] support lifecycles, across all the products, are pretty amazing. Enterprises have really grown dependent on that, and Microsoft has maintained huge teams of maintenance engineers to take care of this software.

The second reason is they know the browser migration is the biggest impediment to Windows 10 adoption. Windows 10 really works at the core OS level for applications like Windows 8, which works like Windows 7. So if you have a native application on Windows 7, it probably runs fine on Windows 10. But the Web applications are where you have a problem because if you are running IE 8 or IE 9 on Windows 7 and you move to Windows 10, you're jumping to IE 11 and you're into a browser migration. And that's what all of our customers are going through today because Microsoft forced the issue by ending support for older IE versions early. But I think one of the reasons they forced it is because they thought, "Hey, if we can get people to IE 11 on Windows 7, then when it comes time to evaluate Windows 10, that's an easy move." I'll tell you who was really happy about it, it was us because it drove a big need for our browser management tools.

Are businesses stuck on older IE versions?

If you go look at any published data on browser share, IE 8 is still the most popular browser version. IE 8 plus IE 9, according to Net Applications, is about 23 percent as of the end of May -- 23 percent of all browsers used on Windows. Think about it. They've been pushing IE 11 as an automatic update onto all consumers on Windows 7 for more than a year. Windows 8 is all IE 10 or IE 11. So who's running all of that IE 8 and IE 9? Well, it's businesses that are locked into them. They're running IE 8 or IE 9 because that's what IT decided was the standard browser for the organization and they didn't want to upgrade. Now all of those PCs will have to move to IE 11 in theory by next January. Obviously, they're not all going to do that. Some will and are going through migrations now. Some will buy Custom Support from Microsoft for a year and try to get it done by 2017. Others will just say, "Screw it, we'll have to stick with the old version and we'll use Chrome for the Internet and we'll lock in IE 8 or IE 9 only for our legacy apps." And others will say, "We'll just risk it … or maybe see if Microsoft just blinks and extends support."

Microsoft hasn't offered many alternatives for organizations.

Microsoft has taken the high road, if you will. And then they also will say, "Well, if you need to sustain this old application, as long as you want to buy a ton more Windows licenses you can virtualize the old version of Windows, the old environment, but you've got to buy more Windows licenses." That's a complex and expensive way, and frankly somewhat insecure way to solve this problem, because you're running an out-of-support environment. And so that's what has left room for us. If you need to swap in some slightly different JavaScript to make your legacy application run in IE 11, you can do that with Ion. And you don't have to take down a server to do it. You just do it at the presentation layer on the client, which is very easy. It reduces all of the complexity of messing with the back-end server code. And it allows you to do it in a phased rollout.

How did Browsium's strategy come to be?

In the early days, we really thought it was going to be a little easier to build tools that magically made those legacy apps work. In the old days, we were taking the IE 6 engine and putting it onto Windows 7 and IE 8 -- something that Microsoft hadn't done. And it turned out it didn't make compatibility work very well and Microsoft was not happy about their legacy code being run by us on Windows 7. It turned out you actually needed to tinker quite a bit with Internet Explorer and Windows 7, quite a bit at the granular level, and be able to tweak the presentation layer of the Web apps. Often this meant making changes to the CSS and JavaScript to make the legacy applications work. And so once we figured that out, then we refined our tools to do that. And that's really been the power of Browsium Ion since we launched it back in 2012.

But Microsoft kind of stuck with the "Hey, we'll give you a one-button magical setting, and if it works, great" approach. But if doesn't work, well then you, as the enterprise IT manager, you've got to figure out an alternative solution: rewrite your apps, replace your apps, virtualize the old environment or run our tools. Enterprise Mode is really more of that strategy from Microsoft. They did a little bit more with Enterprise Mode than they did with Compatibility View, which was its predecessor. But at the end of the day it's all or nothing. You press the button and either that works or it doesn't. And, if it doesn't, you've got to do something different.

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