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Microsoft recently released a replacement browser for Internet Explorer to Windows 10 testers. Tentatively dubbed Project Spartan, it's intended as a game-changer for the web.

Come this summer, Windows users on PCs, tablets and smartphones will be interacting with web sites and web apps,the company said, in a “fast, more secure, and more reliable” way.

But is it really such a big deal? Perhaps more importantly, if Microsoft makes significant changes to its Windows browser, will those changes impact the way people work? Or would enterprise web apps users simply avoid that impact the way they avoided Windows 8?

What's Microsoft Doing Now?

Internet Explorer may very well be one of the world’s least liked pieces of software, so its replacement conjures Monty Python-esque images of greeting its impending doom with “much rejoicing.” But when IE is replaced in Windows, what will actually change?

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Here are two statistics that tech journalists often get confused. The firm NetMarketShare samples large amounts of web traffic to estimate the brand identities of the world’s browsers. By NetMarketShare's reckoning, according to the chart above, IE constituted some 56.54 percent of the world’s actively used desktop-based (non-mobile) browsers as of the end of last month – still a majority, but steadily declining.

Compare that figure against the one that headlines the chart below. StatCounter performs its own web traffic sampling and makes a different estimate: usage share, as opposed to market share.

Of all the requests for content, which browsers were responsible for them? Nearly 49 percent of the world’s desktop-based (non-mobile) web activity, according to StatCounter, came from Google Chrome, as of the end of March. Factor in mobile browsers, and Chrome still commands 43.48 percent of web activity.

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On PCs, IE is the browser most often installed, but Chrome is the one most used. And on mobile devices, of course, IE is not a factor.

A Glimpse at Spartan

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It became clear long ago that Microsoft could not re-attain its place as the supplier of browsers for people who use browsers, with IE. So back in February, the company adopted a bold and perhaps dangerous strategy:

  1. The default browser in Windows 10 will be a lighter-weight client whose framework lets it run on Windows smartphones as well as PCs. Because it’s lightweight, it will have fewer bells and whistles — thus the “Spartan” code-name.
  2. Spartan will omit the compatibility modes that publishers with older CMS systems require their readers to turn on. No longer will the default Windows browser be capable of rendering HTML generated by older CMS platforms, built to older standards. This enables the browser to become much smaller and thus, for mobile purposes, more portable.
  3. Microsoft will leave Internet Explorer 11 in Windows 10 as a fallback mode, should users encounter a web site where a compatibility mode is required. But at present, it does not appear Microsoft will be actively developing IE 11 or making an IE 12.
  4. In an effort to tell web servers it’s capable of rendering anything, Spartan will report itself, by way of its user agent string (the code with which NetMarketShare and StatCounter identify browsers) as all of the browsers — literally as Mozilla (Firefox), the open source WebKit engine, Chrome, Safari (Apple), as well as “Edge,” the code name for Microsoft’s new rendering engine.

Microsoft has tried this kind of strategy before. Four years ago, it discontinued work on a framework called Silverlight in order to promote the new style of apps for Windows 8. Silverlight is still actively distributed, just in a “deprecated” form, even though Silverlight may have been the way to go.

Then when Microsoft could not produce an IE that ran within its new WinRT framework while keeping its compatibility modes, it shipped both the “Metro” browser and IE 10 with Windows 8, calling them both Internet Explorer — to the confusion of everyone.

There’s a tendency with Microsoft to come to a fork in the road and take both sides... even when it ends up being the wrong way.

The Web Moves On

For a great many client/server, SaaS and cloud-based applications, the web browser is the platform upon which every function is staged. At the same time, quite ironically, people think of themselves using browsers less often, not more.

Today, in many people’s minds, “the web” is that amalgam of mysteriously self-replenishing content that you’re reading now. Meanwhile, they’re using services like Drupal, Salesforce, Workday, and to a growing extent, Google Docs. They don’t consider these programs “the web,” even though they require HTTP to communicate with their browsers.

On mobile devices, a growing number of cross-platform mobile apps actually utilize browsers’ rendering engines. Their users don’t see browsers with address bars, bookmarks and Back buttons, so they don’t think of themselves as using browsers, although they are.

Here’s the point: Content management systems, along with CRM, ERP, HCM and all the other SaaS systems rely more on browser technology but less on browser front-ends. Developers who build client-side mobile apps for these classes of applications are using frameworks such as Sencha Ext JS, jQuery Mobile and Telerik Kendo UI.

With these frameworks, users of smartphones, tablets and even PCs launch, use and exit these apps the same way as for native apps. They’re using browsers and they might not even know it.

What It Really Means

The big news about which Microsoft was blaring its trumpets was the dawn of a new browser front-end — which, to review, is the part I just said you’re using less and less anyway.

The news is indeed important to the readers and publishers of content — our readers.

Web sites remain the main distribution points for information and the points of contact between customers and providers. This is changing, especially as apps gain more and more relevance, but today web sites are still above water.

Before web sites can go live, their developers test them in various brands of browsers, including all the compatibility modes of IE. For nearly all of the web’s history, IE has been the brand most often targeted.

It’s not because IE is loved and adored by millions, but rather because it was the browser that shipped with Windows.

Every major producer of browsers now says it expects web developers to target HTML5 as their baseline platform, not any one brand of browser. But it’s frankly ridiculous to assume that veteran developers would suddenly decide to test their products with one browser only and assume it speaks for all the rest. (Never mind what Spartan’s user agent says.)

HTML5 will give developers a means for testing browsers for the presence or absence of individual features (for example, 3D rendering), before executing code that could produce a poor rendering. Leaders in the development field are suggesting that CMS applications, in the future, use these feature tests instead of “sniffing” for browser brands.

That’s all very high-minded, but if in the end, it’s easier to keep sniffing for browser identity, devs will continue to do so. When code produced by a CMS begins sniffing, one of the first questions it asks of browsers is, “Can you render like IE 8?”

If Microsoft fails to convince consumers and businesses to move to Windows 10, the same way it failed with Windows 8, then rest assured, the CMS will continue to work the same way. But if Microsoft’s bold plan succeeds, it will be the CMS that, for once, finds itself at a fork in the road.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License Title image by Christian Lambert Photography.