Microsoft Internet Explorer Browser: A Look Back

This was something I posted way back when browsers were the talk of the crowd. Here’s a look back on what I had to say about this browser years ago.

Microsoft has announced the next version of their web browser, which will be Internet Explorer 8. Didn’t see that one coming! Dean Hachamovitch, manager of the IE team, has some fun with ‘alternative’ names in the IE Team blog post I’ve linked to above, and asked us not to “mistake silence for inaction”.

You’ve got a point Dean, but perhaps you might try looking at it from our point of view. You know, how customers see things? You remember customers, don’t you Dean? Those people who used to use IE but now use FireFox, Opera or Safari? You know, those browsers whose developers appear to be actually doing things and haven’t kept so silent that they haven’t had to chide anyone for thinking that they’re hiding.

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Gosh, when your own CEO appears to be unsure what you’re doing these days, it seems to me you ought to cut your customers a little slack. But that’s just my opinion, I’d love to hear yours. Kudos to Molly Holzschlag for asking the questions and posting the answers by the way!

Thing is though, I think Microsoft have a few problems here. First of all, I thought we were supposed to see a shorter development cycle post IE7, and that certainly doesn’t appear to be happening. A lot has happened in the browser market since IE7 was released, FireFox 3 has test versions out, Opera keeps quietly sitting in the corner getting better and better all the time and.. oh yeah… there’s this new browser appeared for the Windows platform that is based on some very interesting technologies. still, I’m sure that’s not a problem, it isn’t as if it’s supported by one of the other major IT companies… oh wait… it is.

Jeff Attwood said it very well in his recent post on IE, pointing out that given the length of time between IE6 and IE7, us Microsoft customers deserve better than that. We don’t deserve silence, we deserve some kind of proper feedback on what is going on here.

I’ve seen some suggestions around the place that Microsoft can’t innovate any more (indeed, plenty of people claim they never could in the first place). I’m not sure I agree; Microsoft can innovate as well as most of their competitors at least in some areas and at some times. XBox 360 was quite an innovative hardware design, for example.

IE4 was quite innovative in its day. Some of its ideas didn’t take off too well at the time but look at Widgets / Gadgets now and tell me that isn’t inspired by (among other things sure) IE4’s Active Desktop.

Staying with IE, the whole damn problem with that and Netscape navigator was that back in the IE3 / IE4 Netscape 4.x days was that each company innovated a little too much by trying to extend HTML in their own directions instead of sticking closely to the standards.

Of course, innovation is all well and good but all these companies are measured by the money they make, not the innovation they display. Putting a bit of meat and some salad between two bars of soap might arguably be called innovation in the field of sandwich making, but no one is going to want to eat the results, which just goes to show you that being obsessed with “innovation” at the expense of making what people want isn’t a good thing either.

So what am I hoping to see in a new IE8?

Update – Since writing this article I have found the great set of pages on IE7 interface problems at Project Cerbera, pretty much all the issues mentioned there are on my fix-list too now I’ve been reminded of them!

I think it might be time for a ground-up rewrite of the internal engine.

Yes I know that’s going to hurt, but that pain is something Microsoft will have to deal with sooner or later – the longer you keep deferring major work you know needs to be done the more the work will cost in the end, like leaving a minor dental problem until it effects your whole gumline or failing to take care of a minor problem with your car and allowing a major one to develop in its place (I must phone the garage tomorrow…).

I want to see better tools for deploying IE to multiple workstations and managing it afterwards.

The one area where IE scores a big win is on corporate desktops, where it’s installed by default and Microsoft’s ability to allow things like IE to be managed via things like Group Policies is a big win. One bad side of this corporate thing is that you often need special tools (Internet Explorer Administrative Kit or IEAK) to build a version of IE to upgrade corporate desktops. I can see where this might be useful for special deployments but why can’t I just allocate IE 7 easily via a standard MSI and configure it all in situ via GPOs? Would be nice if all parts of Microsoft could actually follow their own installer guidelines!

It should run on XP as well as Vista.

Leaving aside my opinion of Vista and the rights and wrongs of that, a lot of people out there have not upgraded yet and don’t appear to have many plans to upgrade soon. These people should not be forced to upgrade their whole OS just to upgrade the browser.

There is (as always with me) a security side to this; it seems a given that any new Microsoft app will concentrate on security (or at least Microsoft’s version of security). If there are lots of older versions of Windows out there running out of date and insecure browsers, these can easily become infected and may prove very difficult to clean up and keep clean reliably.

It needs to concentrate hard on meeting the various standards for webpage rendering.

There’s a certain amount of work that has gone into all the other browser engines out there which Microsoft’s IE has missed during it’s long hibernation after IE6. I realise it’s a lot of hard work for Microsoft to regain this lost ground, but you folks up there in Redmond only have yourselves to blame for that. And I remember the comments coming from your team around the IE7 release about how the ACID tests were not really that important and it was no biggie that you didn’t do too well on them; well even if that might be true on a practical day-to-day basis, don’t underestimate the PR problems that come from doing so badly in those tests!

The interface sucks. I’m sorry but it does. Let’s have something that looks like a Windows app next time!

Note to whoever signed off on the IE7 interface layout:I realise your primary school child is very special and talented but please don’t let them design any more user interfaces for major software releases until they’ve at least graduated high school (actually maybe I’ve found the reason for the IE8 delay?)

I know that some people like the new interface. That’s great, but please let us choose between the new layout and something more “standard”. It’s illogical, it doesn’t really fit in with your own guidelines and even on it’s own merits it has some faults (e.g. the stop button always working even when there’s nothing to ‘stop’).

When I first talked about Safari, my good friend Lewis Burgess posted a comment that I totally agreed with then and still do that one of the biggest faults with Safari for Windows is that it looks and behaves like a Mac application. Now Lewis is as keen on OS X as I am, so neither one of us was hating on Apple, but I do like my Mac applications to look and feel like Mac applications and my Windows applications to look and feel like Windows applications. Safari for Windows breaks that rule, but in Apple’s defence they can point to IE7 and say “Well Microsoft started it”. This is not a good position for either ‘side’ to be in!

Buy a damn atlas! (or attention to the little things makes a big difference)

Newsflash: America is not the whole world. I know it’s a very small thing but attention to these small details is often the very reason why some products do so well and others do not. With that in mind, is it really too much to ask you to take note of the regional settings for the rest of my computer and set the browser to use those instead of trying to ‘trick’ me into picking US English during your first run setup process? (When I see mistakes like this I wonder if it shows for people of all languages or just if you use any of the ‘non-American English’ choices)

I’m picking on this because it’s a symptom of everything that is wrong with IE7. There are a myriad of little issues that could have been resolved by checking a setting and just following what was already there, or by just picking a sensible default and making the controls to change it reasonably easy to find.

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