By Craig Buckler

10 Ways Microsoft Could Make Us Love IE Again

By Craig Buckler

I have a confession to make. I loved Internet Explorer. Version 1 disappeared almost instantly and version 2 was basic, but version 3 was a huge improvement. Version 4 was astounding and 5, 5.5 and 6.0 built on its success. Netscape failed dismally and Mozilla’s first suite was a bloated mess. Opera was around but didn’t offer a compelling number of features to justify its price tag. At the turn of the millennium, IE was the best browser on the planet.

Mozilla Phoenix appeared in late 2002. Despite trying to stay faithful to IE, I soon switched. Phoenix ultimately became Firefox and the browser was a revelation. At the same time, web developers begun to question Microsoft’s commitment to the web. IE6 was dated and irritating bugs arose as we moved toward web standards.

It took Microsoft another 3 years to release IE7 which, quite frankly, was awful. Businesses hated it because it broke systems designed for IE6 and developers loathed it because it was so far behind rival browsers. IE8 was an improvement but, with IE9, Microsoft closed the gap and delivered a modern browser.

Unfortunately, IE9 remains behind its competitors in many respects. But Microsoft has an opportunity to help us fall in love with Internet Explorer again. Here are my suggestions…

1. Introduce a Rapid Release Schedule

I’m not sure why Microsoft adopted a 2-year browser release schedule but it’s far too slow. Today, IE9 supports fewer HTML5 technologies than Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera — how bad will it look in 2013? Personally, I don’t mind IE9 missing a few HTML5 features now if I know they’re coming in a few months.

Put it this way: Microsoft can produce a new OS and Office suite every 3 years, so why should their browser take almost as long? Google can release a new version of Chrome every 6 minutes (or thereabouts); Microsoft certainly has the resources to keep IE up to date.

2. Implement Automatic Updates

From this point forward, Microsoft should automate browser updates. IE6, 7 and 8 will remain a headache for years to come but there are few reasons why that fate should befall IE9.

I understand Governments and large businesses like to assess software before distributing it to all users. However, I’m sure they’d prefer incremental improvements every few months rather than a major overhaul every couple of years which breaks their applications.

3. Give IE a Beautiful Interface

Historically, Microsoft has worked hard to prettify its applications. They may not have been the best, but they were the most attractive. So why is IE9 uglier than any of its rival browsers? The Developer Tools are particularly shocking…

4. Improve the Developer Tools

Many years ago, Microsoft realized that Windows would fail if developers didn’t create applications for the fledgling OS. Good-quality programming tools were at the heart of everything the company did. So why are IE’s Developer Tools so poor?

IE9 Developer Tools evolved from the Developer Toolbar introduced for IE6/7 around 5 years ago. That was produced within a matter of weeks in response to the ongoing success of Firebug. It was obviously a rushed project with a UI designed by a programmer, yet IE9’s Developer Tools have barely changed. It’s ugly and clunky compared to Firebug, webkit Inspector and Opera Dragonfly.

5. Implement a Better Add-ons System

Web developers understand web technologies yet IE add-on creators need to be Windows desktop programmers with a copy of Visual Studio. The only people creating IE extensions are large corporations and malware distributors.

It needn’t be that way. Chrome offers a simple bookmarklet-like add-ons system and Opera is calling for a browser extension standard. Microsoft could be instrumental in creating an industry-wide system which attracts third-party developers to the IE platform.

6. Do Something For XP Users

Microsoft have chosen to ignore my pleas for a version of IE9 on XP. I’m not surprised, but they could do something about the 50% of Windows users who aren’t able to install their latest browser. Release IE8.1. Distribute Opera. Give out free Vista CDs.

We’ll be waiting a long time for XP to die.

(This is a longer shot, but developer’s lives would be far easier if IE was also available on Mac OS and Linux.)

7. Cut the Legacy Crap

IE9 tries to hide its roots but IE7 and 8 are lurking beneath the surface. It’s time to abandon their legacy and move forward. Specifically, let’s see an end to the old toolbars and the confusing Internet Options dialog.

I’d also like to see an end to Compatibility View. Developers who target IE7 deserve to have their sites break in a modern browser!

8. Remember That Speed Isn’t Everything

IE9 is blisteringly fast. But is that enough to stem the flow of users to rival browsers? I doubt it.

At the time of writing, I’m using Firefox 3.6 — widely regarded as the slowest mainstream browser. The start-up speed may be irritating, but I’m happy to swap those lost seconds for the increased functionality Firefox offers. Simple features such as session restore and better tab handling make all the difference.

Speed helps, but it’s not a substitute for features.

9. Stop the Browser BS

I like IE9. I have a lot of respect for Microsoft. But why do they create misguided pages like Compare browsers to Internet Explorer 9?

Any vendor can cherry-pick features and give their browser nice big ticks. Unfortunately, this page gives the impression Microsoft struggled to produce a decent list. By the bottom, I was half expecting to see “written by Microsoft”, “has a blue ‘e’ icon” and “features the word ‘Internet’ in its name”.

10. Bring Back Innovation

The IE team are continually playing catch-up with other vendors. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago: Microsoft introduced browser add-ons, the DOM, XMLHttpRequest (Ajax), XML tools, font embedding, and many CSS features which are only just becoming a W3C standard. Sure, there were some dubious technologies but IE led the way.

It’s obviously more difficult to come up with new browser ideas today, but Microsoft has more IT R&D resources than most companies. The industry would benefit from a little innovation and excitement.

Do you have any suggestions for Microsoft and the IE team? Constructive comments please!…

  • Tom

    Really great article. Thanks. IE9 is a step in the right direction but theres still some way to go before its up there with Firefox and Chrome etc.

  • Adam

    One word… “Flock”!

    • Another word… “discontinued”!

    • Russ Weakley

      “Support for Flock browsers will be discontinued as of April 26th, 2011”

  • Ronny

    Alternative path:
    1. Give up. You can develop a browser if you want, but give up on JS and rendering engines because you suck at this, and just use Webkit+V8. MS’s pride doesn’t justify developers’ agony.

  • Carlos Matheu Armengol

    Well, I never loved IE, maybe I was wrong, maybe not, but I don’t know if a wish-list is going to be listen by the propietary software developers…

  • Raymond

    1. Microsoft released the platform preview for IE10 yesterday, did they not? I imagine at earliest: IE10 is released PDC11 in September coinciding any preview/beta of Windows 8. At latest, next year’s MIX.

    Either way, the 2 year development cycle seems to be broken by a platform preview of IE10 already being out.

    2. They already announced IE9 would be rolled out via automatic update come June:

    It seems they’re delaying doing it because of what you mention; giving businesses time to assess what that entails. Too slow if you ask me though, I agree a more incremental Chrome like approach would be best.

    3. That’s curiously subjective. The differences between Firefox 4, Chrome 10 and IE9 are minimal to me. Isn’t it all just Windows chrome (at least on Windows), tabs with different border radius? I don’t much get that critique, they’re encroaching the same on minimalism.

    4. I don’t get that critique either. I thought IE9’s developer tools were somewhat an obvious attempt at cloning Firebug and Web Developer in one go. There’s the automatically docked bottom, the nigh-exact same six tools (HTML, CSS, Console, Script, Net/Networker, Profiler, no DOM tab), the ability to edit CSS in place and save it out, rulers, color pickers, Javascript debugging, so on and so forth.

    I’d like to hear exactly what you can’t accomplish with IE9’s developer tools that you can with what you listed. To me my biggest roadblock is I’m so used to Firebug that I’m not fluent with the IE9 dev tools but when I’ve used them they’ve been very nice; ‘specially the profilers which makes me favor it for Javascript development.

    5. Agreed, but I don’t think they care. Two years in a row at these conferences they seem much more interested in how web apps in IE9 can be pinned to Windows 7 as applications. Take Chatzilla for Firefox, Microsoft probably wouldn’t encourage that so much as a web-based IRC client built to pin to task bar with proper context menus and all.

    Their definition of “addons” is different from Mozillas, which is different from Googles.

    6. Yeah, I agree. They need a strategy other than discounting Windows 7 every now and then. Microsoft’s support of web standards shouldn’t be linked to whether a copy of Windows 7 is bought.

    7. I sorta agree. Three years ago though no one had the inclination to exempt IE9 from any Javascript or CSS constraints. No real reason to write a “if gt IE 8” either not knowing if IE9 would be a simple IE8 refresh or the big standards compliance leap that it was.

    Going forward though, I with you.

    8. Yep…doing an anime in SVG isn’t going to be a common use case. Microsoft’s also encroaching on possibilities with HTML5 that begs the question (more), why not support WebGL and let the browser leverage the GPU as well as the CPU?

    9. That’s schism of marketing team and development team for you.

    10. We don’t ask that browser makers innovate with the browser anymore; only that they be compliant with web standards. Can’t have both. That’s why we have to deal with Flash and Silverlight for everything we WISH the browser can do. I feel even as HTML5 and CSS3 use picks up and render some use cases of Flash and Silverlight redundant, innovation is still going to happen in plugins first and maybe every 10-20 years an HTML standard will adopt some of it.

    • Thanks Raymond. A few points…

      Yes, IE10 has just been announced (look out for a post soon). But there’s no schedule yet. It might appear next month. Or 2020.

      IE9’s DevTools are better than nothing but clunky compared to the alternatives. Just try adding CSS styles to see what I mean.

      As for point 10, web standards are wholly dependent on innovation. The W3C does not innovate: that’s the vendors job. If a feature appears in two or more browsers it becomes a standard. That’s how the process works.

      • trond

        Vendors can suggest innovations, but W3C can approve these. If the new suggestions are not approved, they shall not be implemented.
        And new suggestions/features shall be shared among vendors so that it becomes a defacto standard. No more reverse enginering!

      • Raymond

        Well we know IE10 won’t be 2020, we know at least its going to be the version shipped with Windows 8 which is expected to launch next year.

        What we don’t know is whether it launches the same date as Windows 8 or sometime earlier. If sometime before Windows 8, its more than likely going to coincide next year’s MIX or this year’s PDC. Or some other in-between conference.

        Either way, two years seems off mark unless Windows 8 is delayed into 2013.

  • Elliott

    Even if MS did all this list tomorrow I still wouldn’t Love IE…

    MS would have to do a LOT more and actually produce a browser which did a LOT more than it’s rivals for me to convert.

    IMHO MS needs to break the habit of playing catch up with browsers like Firefox and Chrome before any of the millions of people that stopped using IE come back to it.

  • I said so

    Open Source is the future!

  • Evan

    To me, the whole IE saga has faded out. Even if IE becomes the best browser now, I will not be switching easily…

    I have a very good reason: Firefox and Chrome. They work on all major platforms, so I am confident both as a web developer, and as a user. I know the exact same browsers I am using, are used on MacOS and Linux.

  • trond

    10. Bring Back Innovation

    Well, yes… but then again no. IT was the innovation that broke the web in the first place. Innovations that was only done by one company and that was not shared among the rest.
    So if innovation can happen within the browser industry and be made as standards, then I would agree on this point, but innovation just because of innovation – no thank you.

    I do hope that in the future innovation will happen more quickly and that we’ll get html5.x or html version X quicker than we do now, but I believe they (the Browser/standards community) must get the html5 work out of the way.

  • Aaron

    Don’t they also having IE10 coming out this year? For me I am not a big IE user because of them taking there time to get out a new version. I agree with everything you said. I like how you really showed how long it took them for IE1 – 5 because I was to young to remember much being younger then 6 years old. I am 14 and need to always stay up to date on the browsers for me to decide what programming languages I can use.

  • Roses Mark

    Cloud Computing is the future.Now we enter in future like ( iPhone 5 and etc)

  • Wolf_22

    I agree with many of these points, but the spoiled meatball of the bunch is the auto updates idea. Not only would this create security issues, but it would also open the door to possible processing problems, architecture compatibility concerns, and overall consistency issues as many places have both technical and business processes that rely on a constant form of efficient connection (whereas I’m assuming some form of auto update feature could potentially put this at risk; yes, I could be completely blowing smoke here, but it’s an easy assumption considering big shops that have migration processes and such).

    Either way, the security issues alone far outweigh anything else. I understand the virtue of the idea, but it just seems too untrustworthy right now with everything being the way it is with weak networks, stupid viruses, and those crazy Russians that I swear could do anything with 3 inches of copper wire, and 1 DVD drive, and a potato…

    • Raymond

      How exactly would IE9 being pushed over Windows Update create any kind of a security issue?

  • Platt

    I’m still using Netscape.

  • fercho

    Just forget it. Use Chrome or Firefox.

    I won’t come back to IE just because Microsoft has built lot of crap for years:

    * IE is the most vulnerable web browser ever
    * IE has break lot of standards reinventing the wheel and forcing us to do lot of additional work just for compatibility.
    * MS lacks of creativity, innovation and they should go to develop the next Office version. Period.

    • Raymond

      Most vulnerable based on gut feeling, or actual benchmarks of malware threats caught across browsers? You’d be surprised.

  • Brannon

    I completely agree with almost all of these points. I don’t hate IE9’s interface and I don’t really care if they create an add on system. As far as I’m concerned, not including an add on system wouldn’t affect most web developers the way having to struggle with an almost eternally outdated browser does.

    I might start to forgive them if they just did 1, 2, and 3. At this point, any major developer should be doing a rapid release cycle. The web is constantly changing. Releasing big updates every few years to your major browser is like trying to film an Olympic sprint with a series of old fashioned cameras placed every few yards along the track. Automatic updates are also a good idea, provided you’re doing a good job of developing your updates; IE itself proves that you can’t rely on the user to keep up with the web and when they don’t do it, we have to.

  • w2ttsy

    there needs to be a consortium attached to developing one render engine and associated frameworks (CSS, JS, etc). All browser manufacturers would be involved, and it would be like an exclusive open source project.

    Then the browser manufacturers could spend all their time screwing up the chrome, UI and tools. IE9 is horrible, FF4 is horrible and chrome hasn’t really advanced past the beta days (in terms of look and feel).

    Now people have said this stifles innovation. Not necessarily. If we all jumped to webkit, and the webkit team alone was in charge, then yes, it could present an issue, but if it was webkit, apple, google, microsoft, et al contributing to the project, then innovation would be ripe. Every browser would get instant support and the web would progress a lot faster than it is.

    Alas, this is a pipe dream…

  • Christian Krammer

    Great post! I’d really love to see Microsoft to switch to automatic browser updates and shorter product cycles for its browser. These would be the top priority features for me. Although I quite doubt it I really hope that they listen to us web developers.

  • Gozie

    Great Article. Not much of a fan of IE although, I really would love to see IE come up with new innovations. Frankly, I don’t see them keeping up with the fast-paced developments taking place at Chrome and Firefox’s end. Thumbs Up to Chrome!

  • Akram

    I suggest… please IE developers, go and rest at your home. You better have to learn about innovations. Or learn something from Google or Apple…

  • Harish Chouhan

    wow, you seem to be a big Microsoft fan.

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