The other day I attended the Chat with the Internet Explorer team. While I found it interesting and the fact that Microsoft is opening itself up more to the public by allowing developers to blog and allowing more public exposure at their conferences I will say I was very disappointed in the chat. Microsoft totally ignored the issues and the questions that really mattered were deflected and basically passed on for something more that Microsoft wanted to talk about.
I dont have a love/hate relationship for Microsofts products. I generally like the Microsoft offerings and have even started to embrace more of their offerings and with Yukon and Longhorn I find myself anticipating some of Microsofts future products. But, with the insecurities and problems that have sprung from Microsofts web browser it raises the question whether Internet Explorer 7 will be welcome with open arms or just more of a waste of hard drive space. Microsofts design techniques regarding Internet Explorer is 70 % of their problems, the other 30% is the work of very clever hackers and malicious code writers. Before I start let me just say I hold no ill will towards Microsoft. I know a couple of their engineers and partners and I think Microsoft for the most part does a pretty good job of dealing with the volume of customers that they have and I will say without a shadow of a doubt that I do not believe that any other company out here could do any better of a job dealing with that kind of volume. Everything I list here is only an opinion of how I think Microsoft could do a better job in regards to their browser technologies and should not be construed as an attack of any kind
Integration of products can be good, yet sometimes it can come back and bite you in the future. Personally, I feel that the integration of Internet Explorer into Windows was generally a very bad call. It does offer its benefits but from my experiences with Internet Explorer it has done more harm than good. Microsoft during its chat indicated that they were going to even go further and integrate Internet Explorer into Windows more tightly. Another bad call, we have seen the issues that rise up from Internet Explorer now and we know the trusted zones concept does not work very well at all further integration has the potential of being more devastating. The web browser also is the one most trusted application to go through the firewall and when the next exploit comes its going to be very difficult to curb the effects from it. I say when because its no longer a question of IF they can exploit your browser, it is a question of WHEN they will exploit the browser, Also to the degree of integration that Internet Explorer has with Windows now it makes it extremely difficult to patch the browser because not only do the engineers have to worry about breaking something in Windows itself so patching is not the only hurdle the developers have but the amount of testing that they have to do also plays a huge role in how the job needs to be done
Making Windows the vessel of delivery for Internet Explorer
For those of you that do not know this yet Microsoft has said and confirmed that it will no longer make Internet Explorer into a standalone product for older versions of the Windows OS but instead will only deliver new versions of Internet Explorer in the new versions of its Windows OS. Bad idea, I work with several Windows clients now and the one constant battle that I have with these customers is getting them to upgrade. Generally IT guys do not upgrade until the last possible minute. For example, I have had several customers who still refuse to upgrade from Windows NT, I have even more that still use Linux kernel 2.2. The general consensus is if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. IT leads are a tight group of people and they generally do not buy or spend their budget without a reason. In saying that I doubt customers especially the IT guys will buy Longhorn for Internet Explorer 7. A lot of IT guys will think that its more of a waste of money since what they have already just works. Consumers will pursue alternatives at that point such as Firefox or Netscape possibly Opera. If Microsoft continues down this road I think they will single handedly kill their own product.
Deviation from standards
I personally do not blame Microsoft for making their browser so that it does not adhere to standards, I blame the web developers. I blame them for letting themselves get sucked into the world of a corporate standard. When I do cross platform work I do not rely on Microsofts tools such as Visual J++, it only allows me to service one side of the market. If I know that UNIX, Linux or Mac users will be using my solutions I use the tools that will allow me to get the job done for everyone, that is why Im such a stickler for using Sun’s Java, its standards compliant and I can create cross platform applications and content and I don’t have to worry about it. When I write my C# applications I do not tie into the Windows registry because I would like at some point to be able to port to Mono and tying into Microsofts components will not let me do that. We the developers make the solutions, we make the content Microsoft should not be able to dictate to us what we can and can’t do, we need to dictate to Microsoft what standards we will use and how Microsoft should create their products to view our content and to use our solutions. We need to show companies like Microsoft and IBM that we will not be strong armed by anyone. One of the things Microsoft should do is investigate other methods than ActiveX controls. In my opinion there is no way to properly secure Internet Explorer with ActiveX enabled, my recommendation to web developers, stay away from ActiveX controls. The Viewable with any browser campaign has a design guide to help web developers from getting locked into proprietary, or as I call them, corporate standards.
Usability and Feature set
One of the most user unfriendly applications in Windows right now is Internet Explorer. While Microsoft tells us in its advisories to do this and that they often do not explain how to do it. The tools are there but they don’t make it so Jane Grandma can use them easily. When these advisories came out I had to do the work on my relatives machines, not Microsoft. Also, Microsoft seemed to blow off the suggestions for Tabbed browsing. There is a reason for these requests. Its not because we think tabbed browsing just looks awesome its because it helps us be more productive and it eats up less computer resources. As I tell my co-workers, there is a method to my madness and I do not ask people to do something to hear myself speak or to have them do more work just for the sake of having more work. The IE team really needs to start listening to the customer base and truly investigate the features customers want
While I do believe that Internet Explorer is a good browser, due to Microsofts future plans for it I do not feel I will use IE for anything. I do not like the way that Microsoft is integrating it and I feel I have many more problems on my hands than to have to deal with a security headache that a well implemented exploit can take out my system thanks to the browser. Im not a stubborn person though, If Microsoft does correct the problems and shows me that they are really working hard to make Internet Explorer more secure then I may reconsider. Until that time however, I do recommend Firefox as the alternate browser because it works with external mail clients unlike Mozilla that makes users have to use the Mozilla Mail application. That is a big help for corporate users who use GroupWise or other mail clients. I have heard some say that Firefox only works with 95% of the websites out there on the internet. To that I say I would rather work with 95% of the internet than to have to deal with some major security crisis in the future. With that said, the question many people will ask is if I am going to dump the Windows platform? The answer is no, it has a lot of benefits and is a good OS, very reliable and security is much better. For me personally, Internet Explorer is the only Microsoft product that is living on borrowed time.
About the Author
Roberto J Dohnert is a Unix/Linux and Windows Consultant and software developer. His first introduction to Unix based systems dates back to NeXTStep. He is a member of the GNU Darwin Distribution and has made several contributions to that and other projects. His personal webpage is here.