Microsoft Spartan and the Future for Internet Explorer

By Craig Buckler

Following several months of rumors, Microsoft officially revealed Project Spartan — their new web browser — during the Windows 10 announcement on January 21, 2015. Spartan is the reason the Internet Explorer team went quiet during the past fifteen months after IE11 was released.

Spartan started life as a fork of IE’s Trident engine but has evolved significantly. Baggage such as versioned document modes, VBScript and ActiveX have been removed, while new HTML5 features have been added to create a lighter, sleeker, more advanced browser. Spartan’s engine, edgehtml.dll, is designed for interoperability and will be the default browser on Windows 10.

Spartan browser

IE11’s engine, mshtml.dll, will remain on the OS for compatibility reasons. It will be hidden from most users but available to enterprises should they require it for legacy applications or websites requesting one of IE’s many version modes or quirks rendering.

Microsoft is unlikely to release Spartan for older versions of the OS, but Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for anyone using Windows 7, 8 or 8.1 during the first year of release. That should help it achieve critical mass relatively quickly.

Why Now?

Internet Explorer is the oldest surviving mainstream browser with a 20-year history. The early days were good and IE matured into the best, most standards-compliant application at the time.

Then IE6 lay dormant for half a decade. IE7 was a rushed abomination. IE8 improved but failed to adopt the newest standards when other vendors had started to move to HTML5. By the end of last decade, Internet Explorer attracted derisory venom from even the most placid web developers.

IE9 was released in 2011 and showed potential. By IE10, Microsoft had a fast, capable browser that improved further in IE11. IE could finally compete on a reasonably level playing ground.

But few people cared.

There’s one thing worse than having a browser everyone hates: having a browser no one uses.

According to StatCounter, Internet Explorer is the world’s second most-dominant browser but few web developers consider it and many end users have migrated elsewhere.

The EU browser ballot had some impact. In 2009, rivals complained that IE’s bundling with Windows gave the application an unfair advantage. The European Commission agreed and forced Microsoft to implement a browser choice screen following a fresh OS installation. The company complied (although it was later hit with a €561 million fine after failing to show the screen on Window 7 SP1).

I remain skeptical. Perhaps the ballot screen educated a few users but the legislation arrived several years too late at a time when browser competition had improved. Whatever your opinion, the ballot ends soon.

In 2015, the name “Internet Explorer” remains tainted despite the considerable improvements. There are calls for Microsoft to abandon the browser but this has several flaws:

  • Like it or not, many people choose IE. Why should they be forced to switch?
  • The Windows OS and applications depend on IE APIs. Dropping them isn’t an option.
  • Competition in the browser market is a good thing. IE6 took so long to die because it had few competitors in the early years of its life — Microsoft had little reason to update the browser.

Spartan: a Fresh Start

Spartan could help Microsoft break free from IE’s brand. Several new features have been revealed:

  • a clean, modern, distraction-free interface
  • web page annotation
  • an off-line reading list and reading mode (like Safari)
  • Cortana voice recognition and assistance
  • CSS3 transform preserve-3d support (finally!)
  • CSS interaction media queries that permit different styles depending on whether the page is controlled using touch or mouse
  • the Gamepad API
  • further ECMAScript 6 support
  • an about:flags control panel to enable experimental features
  • a new extensions system which is rumored to be similar to — or possibly compatible with — Google Chrome
  • F12 Developer Tool updates including a new network analyzer, source map support, asynchronous call stacks, improved search, and HTML and CSS pretty printing
  • as part of the Windows 10 overhaul, features to make devices work better together whether you’re on a PC, phone, tablet or Xbox.

Above all, Microsoft promises interoperability. Even a little Blink/Webkit spoofing may occur to ensure stuff works.

Death to IE!

The old IE code base will be maintained but, longer term, I expect it to be phased out. Spartan will update automatically like Chrome and Firefox. We’ll hopefully see an end to the problem of having to test multiple editions of the same browser on an OS that permits only one version.

The important news is the name change. “Spartan” may not be the final choice (although I like it) and Microsoft often fails dismally when renaming projects (who refers to “Metro” as anything else?)

Whatever the name, Microsoft must take the opportunity to ditch “Internet Explorer”. Those who have spent the past two decades clicking a blue ‘e’ may be initially confused, but they’ll adapt. Your users, clients, and colleagues need to know that IE is dead and it’s time to upgrade their aging installations. Everyone wins: Microsoft, users and web developers everywhere.


Too little too late? Do we really need another browser?

Perhaps if Microsoft open sourced the code it might gain some traction, but I can't see this being anything more than a new name on IE12, and more incompatibilities for developers to deal with.


If it's just a new name for IE12, you can't really complain it's another browser!

There should be fewer incompatibilities because Spartan doesn't need to deal with legacy problems. That said, IE11 is relatively well behaved. It rarely causes more problems than any other browser (although preserve-3d has taken too long to arrive!)


Completely agree with John. As long as it's the same vendor (Microsoft) I'll see Spartan like the new IE: closed source, Windows-only.

If they open source the product, it's a whole other story. But I guess they probably won't.


The IE name is pretty tarnished and they probably recognize that. They are probably just looking for a fresh start.

I'm pleased (pretty much) at their CSS support. It rivals the other main browsers. I dunno how it is with Javascript but I don't dislike IE11. I dislike older versions with crappy support that I still have to take care of, but I'm glad Spartan is in the mix now.


Trident (or whatever Spartan's engine is) could be open-sourced. Microsoft has done it for some projects.

But would it make a big difference? How many people work on any browser? Even Mozilla's full list of contributors is relatively short - https://www.mozilla.org/credits/. Few people have the time and inclination to attempt understanding and contributing to a project of that size.


The lack of automatic updating and regular releases is the real problem with IE as far as I'm concerned. I have to test on multiple versions of IE, whereas I only test on the latest (or near latest) versions of Chrome and FF because I know that most users will be on the latest or upgraded to it shortly.

IE has got a lot better than it used to be, but still misses important features / does things in a strange way. If it can be updated regularly and automatically to keep up with Chrome and FF, that would be a massive improvement on the current situation.


Well.. I'm not surprised by the name Project Spartan.. it's probably inspired by the quote from 300 "THIS IS SPARTA!"

Still, every web developer suffered for IE support. I just pray that people will upgrade to Windows 10 and never hear IE ever again.... If they fail to implement 'Automatic Update' on the browser then it'll be RIP and new reining champion 'Chrome'. I only use IE to download either firefox or chrome.


I hope this doesn't mean that IE11 will eventually become another IE6 … hanging around and not updating as all the other browsers improve and adopt the new technologies. grimacing


IE11 commands very little market apposed to before with IE6 and they KNOW they aren't at the top of the industry anymore. Their butts are in high-gear wink .


IE has had automated updates for a while ... it's just they don't happen very often and it's easy for users to prevent it.


I suspect it will depend on the adoption of Windows 10. If users stick with Win7/8, IE11 may linger. But I'd hope it won't be as bad as XP/IE8...


I think it's inspired by the XBox Halo games which refers to soldiers as Spartans. It also fits nicely with Cortana which is the AI hologram assistant.


I think it would, for a number of reasons. First, it's a little sacrifice that lets us see they are serious about their new browser, and not just changing the name. Second, it puts pressure on them to implement demanded features, since people can just fork the browser otherwise, as it happens with Chromium and Firefox. Third, it's good for security and interoperability.

I'm also curious about the modularity of their code; mainstream open-source browsers don't excel at this AFAIK.


I feel like it's not so much that the name "Internet Explorer" is tainted as it is "Microsoft Internet Explorer" and, as such, anything that Microsoft produces as a browser is likely to suffer due to its predecessors failure to keep up with the times. I have doubts that Spartan, or whatever they're going to call it, will do anything to help Microsoft in the browser market now. I'm sure it will be a fine browser, but word of mouth is huge and every somewhat computer savvy person in the world has been pushing their friends and family towards better browsers for years now -- in particular Chrome -- and that's not likely to slow down anytime soon. I sympathize with JohnGinsberg; it's likely too little, too late.


Recent IEs have kept up with the times (or not been significantly behind). No one really believes it because of the legacy. The name change is superficial but it may have a positive impact.

I agree Spartan could struggle, though. All the browsers are good - and it would need to be radically better than the competition to persuade users to switch. That said, Hololens support would be great - imagine using your whole wall as a development environment!


Pretty sure the name "Spartan" comes because its a massively stripped down browser without the legacy code of IE.

One of the meanings of "Spartan" is:

Suggestive of the ancient Spartans; sternly disciplined and rigorously simple, frugal, or austere.

This seems to be the most likely source for the name. The code base, compared to IE will be frugal, austere, and rigorously simple.


Finally MS is doing some justice to web developers. Hope Spartan is not clone of IE.Fingers crossed..


I listened to an interesting conversation with one of the Microsoft team responsible for the Spartan project: http://5by5.tv/webahead/94

Two things in particular were pleasing to me:

  1. The new browser (whatever it gets called) will be "evergreen" (meaning that it will update incrementally in the background like Chrome)
  2. IE11 on Windows 10 will include two rendering engines—the old one and the new one found in the new browser. So there's some chance IE11 won't become the IE6/8 of the future.



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