The Trials and Tribulations of Internet Explorer


Every few months, we see a new set of statistics or a new report showing how Internet Explorer is losing browser share, becoming increasingly irrelevant or dying on the vine. This of course sets off ripples across the tech blogs, which gather into a wave of “Death of IE” posts that we all tweet, Digg and generally take pleasure in passing around and commenting on.

Which is not to say these blog posts are at all wrong or untrue. Internet Explorer is losing browser share, relevance and vitality. And more so lately than ever before — the most recent wave of “IE’s Dead” posts, which hit us this week, includes some sound analysis and stats that show IE is losing serious footing on the open web.

One key event was the inclusion of the browser selection screen for European Windows users, which Microsoft was forced to add following a recent ruling by the EU (We posted a preview of the screen last month). The browser choice screen gives users the option of downloading an alternative browser, and the immediate result of the feature’s rollout was a dip in IE’s market share.

Early data from Quantcast shows an immediate five percent decline. IE’s loss seems to have stabilized at around the three percent mark after a few days, though (maybe some of those who switched actually missed IE). The big winner among browser-makers seems to be Firefox, which saw around a two percent jump after the choice screen debuted.

Granted, these are small numbers. But the effect of the browser choice screen is disruptive and significant. Consider most people’s reason for sticking with IE in the first place — many non-technical users don’t think about the web in terms of the browser, and they may not even be aware that another choice exists beyond what shipped with their computer. The EU’s ruling has the power to change that thinking.

The browser choice screen may also push users to upgrade. Major web sites are also doing their part by refusing to support the ancient IE6 any longer — Amazon being the latest.

Also last week, Microsoft showed off the latest build of IE9 at its MIX developer event in Las Vegas, Nevada. The company received praise for finally beefing up its support for HTML5 semantic markup and other technologies like embedded video and hardware acceleration. It’s obvious that HTML5 is where the web is heading, so it’s good news that Microsoft is going to be there to play a part.

But the announcement underscores one of the main problems with IE — the next version of the browser won’t be ready for another nine months to a year at the earliest. Meanwhile, Chrome, Firefox, Safari and, most recently, Opera have already arrived at the crossroads of the next web, with support for HTML5, vastly improved JavaScript rendering capabilities and systems for video and audio playback in place.

Peter Bright at our sister site Ars Technica posted a well-informed essay about this topic Wednesday. An excerpt:

The current IE9 engine is already a huge improvement over IE8, but its preview status makes it irrelevant. We don’t know when IE9 will be finished — 2011 seems the earliest possibility, and there’s an outside chance that it won’t be until 2012 that IE9 ships. In the meantime, we get nothing from Redmond.

This approach sets Microsoft apart from the other browser vendors. Firefox, Chrome, and Opera all get regular updates. I don’t just mean security fixes, though they get those too — they get regular feature updates that improve their performance, improve their standards compliance, and improve their user interfaces. Firefox, for example, had release 3.0 in July 2008, 3.5 in June 2009, and 3.6 in January 2010. Opera 9.5 was released in September 2007, with 10.0 in September 2009, 10.10 in November 2009, and 10.50 in March 2010.

Over a similar time frame, Internet Explorer 7 was released in October 2006, IE8 in March 2009. And now nothing further is likely until 2011.

Microsoft’s dog-slow release schedule, and its unwillingness to support bleeding-edge web technologies at the same rate they are being adopted by its competitors are the factors leading to its browser’s loss of dominance. Users want the new features of the new web now, not in a year. And they can access those new features almost everywhere else except for inside Internet Explorer.

IE isn’t dead, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon — its market share is still above the fifty percent mark worldwide. But Microsoft seems to be intent on continuing to drive its key web consumer product towards irrelevance no matter how fast the web continues to evolve.

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