Will We Have an IE Zombie Movie?

Image credit: iStockphoto/Denis-Art

In tones that could preface a horror film, Microsoft announced the death of its venerable Web browser Internet Explorer on June 15.

“Microsoft Edge with IE mode is officially replacing the Internet Explorer 11 desktop application on Windows 10,” said Microsoft in a statement. “As a result, the Internet Explorer 11 desktop application will go out of support and be retired on June 15, 2022, for specific versions of Windows 10.

Or, as veteran tech journalist Steven J Vaughan-Nichols puts it: “The death of Internet Explorer: Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

Is Internet Explorer playing possum: seemingly quiescent, only to leap up and surprise the audience once again?

Nineties surfing

“The first version [of IE], dubbed Microsoft Internet Explorer, was installed as part of the Internet Jumpstart Kit in the Microsoft Plus! pack for Windows 95,” says Wikipedia in August 1995. The Microsoft offering was the upstart in the nascent browser market — a puny acorn next to the sapling that was Netscape's Navigator in a fertile-yet-still-barren field for the World Wide Web was still causing a lot of media buzz but not much else.

Microsoft Internet Explorer kickstarted the browser wars. “Microsoft's...quick-fix answer was to adopt Spyglass, a commercial version of the successful Mosaic web browser,” writes Vaughan-Nichols. He says that Spyglass was the foundation of IE 1, but “IE 1 was a flop. It also created bad blood with Spyglass, which had been promised a percentage of Microsoft’s profits from IE.”

“By including it free of charge with their operating system, [Microsoft] did not have to pay royalties to Spyglass Inc, resulting in a lawsuit and a USD8 million settlement on January 22, 1997,” says Wikipedia.

Browser warfare

The late nineties were a surreal time for the Internet industry. Those who missed out on the business ventures of the dot-com boom might want to read “Starving to Death on $200 Million” by James Ledbetter, which details some of the shenanigans. And, of course, Netscape and Microsoft were in the thick of it.

“The October 1997 San Francisco release party for Internet Explorer 4.0 “featured a ten-foot-tall letter 'e' logo...Netscape employees showing up to work the following morning found the logo on their front lawn, with a sign that read 'From the IE team ...We Love You'," described Wikipedia. “The Netscape employees promptly knocked it over and set a giant figure of their Mozilla dinosaur mascot atop it, holding a sign reading "Netscape 72, Microsoft 18" representing the market distribution.”

IE kickstarted the browser wars in the mid-90s

While an 18% market share seems paltry for a firm whose operating system software dominance was nonpareil in 1997, integrating IE into Windows 95 gave the browser a large installation base. "If you look at Windows 95, it was a quantum leap in difference in technological capability and stability," Gartner analyst Neil MacDonald told CNN in 2001.

In retrospect, it seemed inevitable that Internet Explorer would stomp on its competition as the de facto browser embedded within Microsoft Windows. But, of course, that also brought legal ramifications.

Monopoly position

“United States v. Microsoft Corporation, 253 F.3d 34 (D.C. Cir. 2001) is a noted American antitrust law case in which the US government accused Microsoft of illegally maintaining its monopoly position in the personal computer (PC) market primarily through the legal and technical restrictions it put on the abilities of PC manufacturers (OEMs) and users to uninstall Internet Explorer and use other programs such as Netscape and Java,” according to Wikipedia.

“Many of the tactics that Microsoft has employed have also harmed consumers indirectly by unjustifiably distorting competition,” wrote U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson in a 1999 statement. “The actions that Microsoft took against Navigator hobbled a form of innovation that had shown the potential to depress the applications barrier to entry sufficiently to enable other firms to compete effectively against Microsoft.”

The DOJ's actions against Microsoft loomed large then, but Redmond remains one of modern technology's major players. Netscape turned into Mozilla Foundation, a “U.S.-based non-profit organization that exists to support and collectively lead the open source Mozilla project”. Mozilla is best known for “Mozilla Firefox, or simply Firefox, a free and open-source web browser developed by the Mozilla Foundation and its subsidiary, the Mozilla Corporation.”

Vendor lock-in

Years ago, when Internet Explorer's market dominance was almost total, a programmer friend railed against users who didn't cleave to Microsoft's browser. He said his tasks would be easier if he didn't need to craft his code for any other browsing platform.

Yes, of course, but heterogeneity in tech setups is a best practice. What could go wrong if entire processes depend on a sole vendor or platform?

Japan is not known for technical illiteracy, yet widespread dependence on the moribund browser persists. “A March survey by information technology resource provider Keyman's Net revealed a large number of organizations in Japan relied on Internet Explorer, with 49% of respondents saying they used the browser for work,” said a news article. “They said the browser was used for employee attendance management, expenses settlement, and other internal tools.”

What kind of organizations? “Since April, Tokyo-based software developer Computer Engineering & Consulting has been inundated with requests for help,” said the article. “Those customers are mostly government agencies, financial institutions, and manufacturing and logistics companies that operate websites only compatible with Internet Explorer.”

The saga of Internet Explorer is a lesson for CDOs

A Japan-only problem? Nope. South Korea also has difficulty scrapping Internet Explorer.

“The Korean Court System, in particular, is embarking on a large-scale project costing hundreds of billions of won to build a next-generation system that will eliminate their reliance on Internet Explorer,” says an article from a Korean language school in Singapore. “Unfortunately, the project is estimated to be completed in 2023, a year after Microsoft's plan to sunset the browser, leaving Koreans wondering whether they can continue navigating the site after technical support for Internet Explorer has ended.”

As it stands now, “Microsoft Edge with Internet Explorer mode (“IE mode”) is the only browser with built-in compatibility for legacy IE-based sites and apps.”

Permanent disablement

“We highly recommend that you apply the Disable IE Policy in your own environment on your own schedule,” says Microsoft, “so you can control your own permanent disablement of IE.”

But ActiveX seems forever dependent on the now-squelched Internet Explorer. A Microsoft document presents the following within an FAQ on Microsoft Edge deployment: “Microsoft Edge doesn't support ActiveX controls and Browser Helper Objects (BHOs) like Silverlight or Java.”

“If you're running web apps that use ActiveX controls, x-ua-compatible headers, or legacy document modes, you need to keep running them in Internet Explorer 11,” says the Microsoft document. “Internet Explorer 11 offers additional security, manageability, performance, backward compatibility, and standards support.”

Key takeaway

The saga of Internet Explorer is a lesson for CDOs. The dawn of the 21st century featured a browser built by the world's most powerful software company, with high adoption rates. It's even ported over to the Mac operating system for Apple users in marketing.

Some of IE's woes can be tied to the nature of technology, where a strategy of “if it works, don't try to fix it” isn't always wrongheaded. But such a policy isn't suited to an enterprise environment. Despite Microsoft's May 2021 announcement of Internet Explorer's EOL, a significant percentage of users and institutions seem stuck on the moribund browsing platform.

Microsoft announced its strategy in advance, built a replacement (Edge) with an IE-compatibility mode, and published an FAQ on transferring bookmarks and passwords to the new platform. Clearly, Redmond is doing things right.

In the coming months, we shall see how many survivors (like people in a zombie film who insist “it's just a flesh wound”) continue to use IE. The analogy's apt, as history shows that end-of-life software tends to attract malware writers. We don't yet know if that will be the case with IE.

In the meantime, if you can migrate to Edge, it seems a worthwhile strategy.

Stefan Hammond is a contributing editor to CDOTrends. Best practices, the IOT, payment gateways, robotics and the ongoing battle against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/Denis-Art