Internet Explorer: Another sign of a faster, more open Microsoft

IE on Windows and phone
Credit:Mary Branscombe

The unthinkable is possible at Microsoft these days; not only will Internet Explorer will get new features faster but the cross-platform religion might take it beyond Windows.

Will Internet Explorer ever come to other platforms like iOS and Android? Will it go open source? Will it support WebRTC? Will it switch to using WebKit? Will it drop ActiveX? Will it start shipping as fast as Chrome?

A week ago most people would have called those far-fetched ideas. But at BUILD, the new head of the Internet Explorer team, Sam George, was remarkably forthright about how many possibilities are on the table for the Microsoft browser. "Right now we're in the middle of planning our next version and we're looking at all of the things we could possibly go do," he explained.

Some seem very likely, others rather less so, and replacing IE's Trident browsing engine with WebKit or Blink isn't going to happen: "Our analysis is that the fastest way to keep up with the modern web and keep delivering great interoperability is with our current technology," George says.

But it's clear that Microsoft is at least considering everything. Web developers can even get a ringside seat for some of those decisions by following the new status.modern.ie site, where you can see possible features go from Under Consideration to In Development. In Development is a short list so far, but on the first day of BUILD last week it went from five to seven features over the course of the day.

Today all the possibilities on the site are ones Microsoft has put there, and it's a no for WebRTC for real-time communications in a web browser. Instead, ORTC is under consideration for IE 12. That's a proposal backed by Microsoft, Google, and multiple mobile carriers that will be compatible with WebRTC, and yes, it will go through the W3C. Microsoft is a member of 400 working groups on open standards now, many of them at the W3C.

And as part of the conversation George wants the IE team to have with the web community, he'd like to see the status site open up too, becoming a way for developers to say "here's a problem we see on the Web in general, we'd love to see you pick this up."

His recent work on the Windows Phone team may account for his willingness to at least consider everything on the path to reinventing the approach to IE, even the unlikely ideas. Might we see IE back on the Mac?

"We're aware of a set of things we want to go do to move forward with the web. We're definitely open minded to the idea, we think there are a few things that are a little higher priority to do in the Windows ecosystem first but those things are being discussed." What about IE on iOS or Android? "If you're asking whether the thoughts are crossing our mind; of course. There are a lot of things that we want to do right now, it just depends where it falls in the priority stack."

IE on another platform would never be the same as IE on Windows; alternative browsers on iOS are just Safari with different interfaces, although it might let you have the same tab sync between phone and desktop tabs that IE 11 brings to Windows Phone 8.1. And even on a platform where Microsoft could actually ship a full browser, it wouldn't have the same access to hardware acceleration it has in Windows -- so the rendering might be similar but the performance wouldn't necessarily be as good as on Windows.

That ability to get close to the metal is a practical argument against moving IE to WebKit. With Windows and IE running on lower and lower end hardware (Atom, ARM and the Internet of Things), explains Tobin Titus of the IE performance team, "it's imperative that we have the ability to optimize as best as we possibly can. If we move to something like WebKit, we don’t necessarily have the ability to have that flexibility."

That sounds a lot more like the IE team considering and deciding against an option with no practical advantages that would also lose the innovations you get from competition between browser makers, rather than dismissing it as a philosophical impossibility. ("Just because it's a WebKit browser doesn't mean it will work the same everywhere," points out Jorge Peraza, who works on IE for Windows Phone)

The same seems true of what would once have seemed unthinkable but now seems just unlikely. Would Microsoft make IE open source?

"Not at this time," George says. "It's certainly something we're considering but we have no plans right now."

But what we will get is an IE that comes out more quickly, with a new model for plugins that's more like Chrome and Firefox add-ins than ActiveX, along with compatibility and management tools that make businesses comfortable with the pace of change.

IE doesn't update quite as slowly as you think, points out Frank Olivier, who is in charge of graphics in IE. Thanks to Windows Update, it doesn't have to be completely tied to a new version of Windows or a whole new version of IE. "For features like WebGL we have shipped four times in the past six months; we are nearly finished with our renderer, so you'll see us shipping another update with more WebGL in it."

But Web developers are used to the pace of Chrome, with new versions coming out far more often. "We're super aware of that," admits George. "We are building plans right now. We're not prepared to talk about exactly when or what frequency but it's something we've heard loud and clear and it's something we think we need to do."

Of course if IE updates more often, developers will want to know what's in each version and businesses will want to have a way to control those updates, which is why George is talking about future plans but not giving details that aren't yet decided.

"That's part of the plan about shipping faster that we're still putting together. For right now it's business as usual and one of the reasons we're not talking about the plan about shipping faster is we need to have things ready for developers and a way to articulate best practices [on updates]; but we will as we start shipping faster."

The same is true of moving from the ActiveX model, which is both a security problem and something businesses rely on to a new way of adding third-party features to the browser (and to the F12 developer tools as well). "We think we need a better and more modern extensibility model going forward", says George but he also points out "there are a lot of businesses built on those things."

"Right now we are putting together plans for how can we preserve those investments even more than we are doing with enterprise mode IE but still move very quickly on a mode rapid cadence in order to embrace the modern web and move forward with the modern web," he says.

Whether it's clinging to ActiveX controls or clinging to old versions so they don't have to update the web apps they built for IE 6, businesses aren't comfortable with IE moving faster (but ironically, the same businesses sometimes run older versions of IE alongside Chrome for the newer features). Adding back old functionality in a modern, secure way with enterprise mode IE is the first step to getting those businesses moving for George.

"We're not actually seeing that many people opting out [of upgrades]. One of the more significant places we see people opting out is enterprise and that's exactly what we're doing with enterprise mode IE, we're making it so we can move forward and have a great modern browser but still a highly compatible one for their older stuff."

If Microsoft can get businesses to finally move to new versions of IE as they come out, developers can stop building workarounds for old versions of IE that often ignore the HTML standards in IE 10 and 11. Those workarounds are tedious for developers to create and infuriating for users who have the latest versions, because instead of getting the code the site serves to Chrome and Firefox that IE 11 could render correctly, they get the dumbed-down version for old IE.

"We're going to continue those investments to help consolidate people on the latest version," George assures us. That way, IE 11 won't turn into IE 6 because of the drag from businesses fossilizing on old versions of the browser and Microsoft can keep up with HTML 5 as it develops.

"There's always more work to do and we're going to be doing that," George promises. "We're committed to that."

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