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!…
Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.