Friday, September 19, 2008

What is Microsoft strategy with IE8?

This week, Microsoft released its second beta version of Internet Explorer 8 (IE8b2). If I have not tried it yet, I have read many articles, documents, and reviews about it to know that Microsoft achieved a major shift in their tactics.

Until recently, Microsoft did not care about the competition because they were the leader! They provide the most widely used operating system which helps them distributing the most widely used tools: Office, Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, etc. They are known to publish very few specifications and APIs, known to non disclose or not commit to release dates, known to impose unilaterally their own strategies, known to use their dominant position to fight competitors.

I have the feeling that none of the previous statements stick to IE8 development! And I am very intrigued by this new attitude...

Because of my work (I will post an entry about it later ;), I have been following various efforts simplifying developments of Web 2.0 applications for the enterprise world. Few years ago, Firefox was not as famous as today and most of Internet/Intranet users were only using Internet Explorer 6 (IE6). This platform represented a nightmare to developers because it was not standard, it relied on many ActiveX features (like to handle PNG transparency), it was very sloooow and eats up memory! Then Microsoft came up with Internet Explorer 7 (IE7) which contains many (small I would qualify) improvements. At that time, they also started to publish technical articles on IE, its rendering engine, and its JavaScript engine in the IEBlog. I remember having started to follow it beginning of 2005 and I read there many useful recommendations (like the series on writing efficient scripts). It was useful but also frustrating: why did they ship such a problematic product, why do we have to patch for their inefficient browser, etc.?

The recent posts in that official blog about IE8 show a different approach: the PM/development team is exposing the planned features to get feedback upfront, having then the possibility to adjust the tool is needed. Strategically, they will limit the nasty effects of misestimated decisions (like the choice to block ActiveX controls in the first IE7 releases). Emotionally, they appear more open to the IE user/developer community.

More than being open to the rest of the world, the PM/development team have decided to adopt solutions designed by their competitors! There are the visible features like the “new tab behavior” and the “awesome bar”, for example. And there are less visible ones like -ms- prefix for the non standard CSS extensions.

I have the feeling that this honest and competitive attitude is sustainable.

But I do not understand the reasons behind this new attitude, I mean, what benefits Microsoft expects to get from it... If Microsoft provides a browser like other ones, for sure its large base of current users will be happy to get access to new features, but it will be easier for them to switch to the competition too. Because there are major actors in that field (Mozilla Firefox, Apple+WebKit, Opera, Google Chrome) with a lot of development resources, it will be difficult for Microsoft to maintain the pace, to keep their market share. The competitors have already assailed the place in its center: Google delivered Gears that works with all browsers, Mozilla plans to plug TraceMonkey in IE.

So what? Do they plan to stop developing IE? By the way, it is a free tool, so producing no income. Do they plan to open-source it? Do they have a lack of resources to innovate again in that field? The saved resources can then focus on tools with a better ROI? like Office, SharePoint, Live, etc.

It is an interesting moment to scrutinize. And I will be interested in reading other point of views!

A+, Dom
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