As Internet Explorer Grows Dim, Microsoft Risks Fragmentation

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by Andy Patrizio

It took years of near begging and pleading, but Microsoft has finally gotten people away from Internet Explorer 6. The company recently noted that IE6 usage his finally dropped to below one percent in the U.S.

That’s the good news. The fly in the ointment? While Firefox and Chrome are on their latest iteration for all platforms, Microsoft will have a separate version of Internet Explorer for each operating system, which creates a fragmentation scenario, something developers don’t like much.

Fragmentation is a dreaded situation for any platform. It harmed Unix all throughout the ’90s and was something Linus Torvalds desperately tried to avoid with Linux – to no avail.

Microsoft Internet Explorer IE9To some degree, The Mozilla Foundation fragged itself with its rapid release schedule for Firefox. It caused some developers to throw up their hands and give up, like Google. It has not bothered to update its Toolbar past Firefox version 4.

In the case of Internet Explorer, Microsoft is looking at fragmentation along OS lines. Windows XP, which it is also trying very hard to bury, can only use IE 8, nothing higher. Windows 7 comes with IE 9, and when Windows 8 ships, it will run IE 10, which will not be backwards compatible with Windows 7.

This means Microsoft will have three (actually, four, since Vista is still out there. It uses IE9) platforms, each with its own version of Internet Explorer. If a developer chooses not to support IE 8, for instance, it risks locking out all Windows XP users, and there’s still quite a few in business that have not migrated to Windows 7, much to Microsoft’s consternation.

So does Microsoft platform fragmentation? It doesn’t think so. “Our decision with IE9 was not to build to the lowest common denominator. That pattern has arguably been the norm for browser vendors, including IE, for years,” said a Microsoft spokesperson via e-mail.

“With IE9, we made the decision to help unlock the best Web experience possible, which means taking advantage of everything around the browser – including Windows 7 and modern PC hardware.  Windows Vista customers have a great browsing experience with IE9, but in building IE10 we are focused on continuing to drive the kind of innovation that only happens when you take advantage of the ongoing improvements in modern operating systems and modern hardware,” the spokesperson continued.

Scott Paley, co-founder and president of Abstract Edge, an online marketing agency involved in Web design, says that this could be a plus for Web developers in some ways.

“If they made it so there was one browser tied to one platform, so we knew we only needed to concern ourselves with IE8 on XP and IE9 on Windows 7, that might actually save us time. That might be quicker because you don’t have to go through all the different combinations of browsers on platforms,” he said.

The fragmentation is there anyway, he argues, since he currently has to qualify and test client Web sites on IE 7, 8 and 9. “If anything, this might help close it long-term by pushing organizations to get off the old stuff. When all of a sudden certain Web sites aren’t working correctly, and it starts becoming a competitive disadvantage for your organization, that’s when fires start getting lit. So I think it does incentivize people to upgrade,” he said.

But he admits he’d like to forget about all of the old browsers. “If I know I can only focus on browsers that have come out in the last year or two, that will save a lot of trouble,” said Paley.




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