Microsoft Spartan and the Future for Internet Explorer

Craig Buckler
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.