The news is circulating that in the current builds of Windows 7 it’s possible to disable Internet Explorer 8. Of course, things aren’t quite that simple – “disable” is very different to “remove”. The reports claim IE8 is effectively neutered, but remains in the OS to service its base functions. But for web browsing, you’ll need to install something else.
I’d like to think this is Microsoft coming to its senses. But like any large corporation, it never does anything that it thinks might damage its market share – unless its hand is forced with all the subtlety of a shotgun to the forehead. So why exactly is Microsoft doing this? I think it realises the EU isn’t going to just lie down and continue to let it ship IE as the default browser.
And Microsoft doesn’t have history on its side. If we go back to the original Windows 95 release, it had no built-in web browser. That only came with the optional service release bolt-on that brought luxuries such as native USB support to Win95 as well. Only from that point on did Microsoft consider IE to be part of the OS. Clearly, the argument goes, this was monopolistic leveraging of the marketplace – why download and install something else when IE is already on the machine?
Unfortunately, the picture isn’t quite that simple – at the time, Netscape ruled the world and had distributed tens of millions of copies of its product. Although people may be surprised to hear it now, early IE wasn’t bad at all, but the drift from Netscape to IE gained momentum as the “in the box” factor took a real grip.
Now I don’t mind particularly if a vendor cares to throw in a free product. It’s more for me to choose from. But I do care when the vendor – okay, let’s drop the pretence and just say Microsoft – goes on to claim that Internet Explorer is intrinsic to its way of building operating systems, and that calamities will befall us all if we dare to suggest that IE could be unbundled. This didn’t get very far in the DoJ and EU court cases even though, in fact, Microsoft did have a point. The reality is that it’s used IE-rendering capabilities for all sorts of things inside the OS as well as the end-user task of web browsing.
And at this point, I have to get a little bit annoyed with the Redmondians. If you’re going to put a web browser in there, it has to be the best of the best. Predelivering the one that everyone would choose given the choice isn’t the same thing as predelivering any old rubbish. The reality is that Internet Explorer has been something of a dead donkey in its recent incarnations. Does anyone have anything good to say about IE6? No? I’d have to agree. It’s a smoking hole of a web browser, which was neither standards compliant nor secure. In fact, just about everything about it was a stinker. IE7 was somewhat better, if you were prepared to use a micrometer to track the changes. IE8 is definitely much better still, but it’s still playing an embarrassing game of catch-up with Firefox and Safari.
Maybe I’m just too simple for all this complicated stuff, but any application design that allows content to wreck the host application by hooking in all sorts of nasties isn’t a good design.
When I met the IE8 team in London some months ago, I cooled the temperature in the room by several degrees by daring to suggest their mission would be judged a failure on the first day someone got web-hosted malware into their system. They gulped hard, and said that was kind of inevitable. I’m not saying that anyone else is intrinsically better, but you have to worry about the mindset of people who set the security bar so low. I’m fed up with hearing a series of claims that essentially boil down to a promise that Internet Explorer 8 will be more secure than IE7. In this case, “more than before” isn’t starting from a particularly high bar.