Internet Explorer turns 20 this year, but there will be no celebrations. Instead IE is being pushed off the Windows desktop in favor of a brand new web browsing experience: Microsoft Edge. Internet Explorer is not dead, nor will it be missing from Windows 10 when it ships on July 29.
Instead, it will be like the ironing board you take out of the closet when you absolutely have no choice but to iron that shirt. You’ll use IE when Microsoft Edge’s forward-leaning technology doesn’t support the outmoded past.
Called “Edge” because, Microsoft executives explain, it lives “at the edge of modern web standards and capabilities” and seeks to push the limits of what you can do today online to the edge. It may also be called that because it’s an edgy gamble on the future, one that Microsoft did not approach lightly.
“There was a lot of very healthy debate within company as to what direction should we take with [the] browser,” said Drew DeBruyne, Partner Group and Apps Project Manager for Browser who spoke to Mashable a few weeks before the Windows 10 launch. “Should we do just the next version of IE? Or should we take advantage of … the watershed release that we planned for Windows 10, to really set a new basis for the future of the browser?”
DeBruyne, who arrived at Microsoft a few years after the company purchased Mosaic and turned it into Internet Explorer, told me there were some in the company who were not immediately convinced Microsoft needed to make a new browser.
“We really had to walk around the problem and the situation and think very hard about taking such a dramatic step,” said DeBruyne, “But in the end it’s going to be the best thing for our customers our users.”
DeBruyne’s boss, Corporate Vice President, Operating Systems Group Joe Belfiore, admitted he wasn’t one of those running to change the browser’s name. As the former leader on Internet Explorer 4 and 5, he told me he has a fond space in his heart for Internet Explorer. At the same time, Belfiore was among those saying it was time to move on, especially from the technology. “From my point of view, and what mostly carried the day, was a tech decision,” he told Mashable.
Making a break
It’s possible no one will be sad to see Internet Explorer go. Despite its meteoric rise from 1995 to 2004, when it literally destroyed Netscape, no one was cheering. Microsoft built the web browser right into the Windows OS, making its dominance a forgone conclusion and sealing its fate as the Web’s most hated browser (the company was eventually forced to decouple the two as a consequence of a landmark lawsuit from the Department of Justice).
There were other reasons to dislike Internet Explorer back then, not the least of which was Microsoft’s insistence on using its own form of HTML and its often abysmal performance.
By 2010, Microsoft was responding to the criticism — and the heat from a little upstart web browser known as Google Chrome — with a completely rebuilt Internet Explorer 9. It was much better, but by that point no one really seemed to care.
DeBruyne called the work done on IE 9, 10 and 11 “terrific,” but also admits that it was “unappreciated.” Much of that was because Microsoft, as it has often done with Windows, always sought to make Internet Explorer compatible with all the legacy software that had been built to run on it (think Active X, Browser Helper Objects and VB script) while supporting modern web sites and services.
“So that tension between legacy compatibility and interoperability with the modern web really was untenable,” said DeBruyne.
The browser team knew they had to make a change, and the “watershed” release of Windows 10 seemed like the perfect moment. As they began work, which started almost a year and a half ago, the browser team got approval from the highest levels, including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. DeBruyne wouldn’t say if Nadella needed convincing, but did note, “Satya’s said publicly that, on the whole, we need to take more risks, try more things as a company. Certainly, he did ultimately buy off on our plan.”
“The IE brand has gone through some ups and downs over the years,” says Roger Capriotti, Microsoft’s senior director of product marketing for Windows and browsers. “A new name and logo serves two purposes: The most important reason is we wanted to signify a new browser with new capabilities that’s going to be the browser for Windows 10. Full stop. Second, for those folks who have been reticent to even give us a chance, we think having the name Microsoft Edge helps people think about the browser as something different.”
Belfiore thinks Microsoft could have changed the technology and implementation without changing the brand name, but a new “name and brand signal the tech change.” At the same time, Microsoft’s trying to be artful about the change, as evidenced in Edge’s app icon, styled with an “E” that’s very similar Internet Explorer’s.
The goal, Belfiore told me is to deliver “the right degree of change, new benefit, modernity, performance, but at the same time not alienating people.”
What did they do?
Microsoft Edge is probably best described by its former code name, Project Spartan. At a glance, Edge is the sparest and most austere-looking browser Microsoft has ever produced. It’s low on icons, almost devoid of menu text and offers an incredibly low-key design (you can change the overall color to add a touch of pizzazz). Underneath the hood, though, the story gets much, much more interesting.
Back in 2014, there were reports that Trident, Internet Explorer’s rendering engine since version 4.0, would undergo major changes in the widely anticipated Internet Explorer 12. They were half right.
Microsoft Edge has a new rendering engine with a Trident heritage. “We took Trident, our old rendering engine or MSHTML, and essentially forked it or pared away many — in fact I think almost all — of the legacy technologies and legacy behaviors that had sort of defined and separated IE from other modern browsers,” explained DeBruyne.
That break with the past and introduction of “Edge HTML” could result in the fastest and, potentially, lightest Microsoft browser in years. DeBruyne told me that early telematics from users and some benchmark testing indicate a browser that is as fast, if not faster, than the Blink-based Chrome (Blink is also a fork, of the open-standard WebKit). “We got many of those performance wins because we were able to leave many of our legacy IE technologies in IE,” he noted. Anecdotally, I can already see the speed difference.
On the other hand, a break with the past is bound to result in some broken sites. Among the technologies Microsoft is leaving behind, in Edge at least, is Active X, a legacy software framework for rendering components and objects. “While it’s an incredibly important technology still — there so many web applications that depend on it — it really didn’t fit in conceptually with universal Windows platform,” said DeBruyne.
And that’s where Internet Explorer, which now lives under “Accessories,” comes in. When a site needs IE, Edge will let you know and offer you the option of continuing to load the site on Edge, knowing that some portion of it may not function properly, or opening it in IE.
“Most developers, when they’re building a web application, want to build one that works across browsers and works across devices and, if that’s your goal, then Active X is not a technology that you’re likely to use anyway. So, in some sense, we’re just recognizing the reality,” said DeBruyne.
Despite Microsoft Edge’s Trident roots, it’s really a brand new web browser, which means everything has to be built out, almost from scratch. As a result, some stuff, even when the browser launches on July 29, won’t be ready. The most notable absence: Extension support.
At Microsoft’s Build Conference in June, the company demonstrated extensions working in Edge, so it’s clearly in the works, and Microsoft has promised extensions will come before the end of 2015. But there will be nothing at launch, and that will be a problem for some users.
“We know it’s important, particularly to enthusiast browser users. What we see is actually a relatively low percentage of browser users use extensions, but for those users, they’re absolutely necessary,” said DeBruyne. Certainly, it’s made Edge challenging to use in my everyday work life where I often log into WordPress through the LastPass extension.
What about security extensions? Consumers who rely on applications like Symantec’s Norton Safe Web extension may be concerned there’s no third-party pre-checking sites and links in Edge. Microsoft, though, doesn’t view the lack of support as a security risk, mainly because of the protections already built into Windows 10 and, by extension, Edge. Windows 10 and Edge include SmartScreen and Windows Defender.
In fact, DeBruyne seems comfortable with people not installing third-party security extensions. “We feel that by building all of those systems in and ensuring that they all work well together, our users won’t end up in a situation where they’re getting slow performance or crashes or so on because our stuff isn’t working well with Norton or Symantec or whatever.”
There is, however, a clear and core benefit to Edge’s radically different extension approach.
Stop hurting ourselves
Once every three months, I show up at my neighbor’s house to clean up her system. Internet Explorer and Chrome, the two browsers she switches between (when one or the other misbehaves), are usually barely functioning when I arrive and I invariably discover a host of unwanted software and extensions are laying the system low. She usually has no idea where half of them came from. The trouble often starts with extensions (and browser helpers). Microsoft Edge may end this pain.
When Microsoft Edge Extensions do arrive in the fall, they will be a different breed. First of all, the new Universal Windows Platform no longer allows binary extensions that can serve as hooks into Windows itself. Belfiore noted that when IE was created, allowing such extensions seemed like a good idea. Now many extensions let third-party garbage piggy back their way onto your system and there are constant threats from malware. Even Microsoft is guilty: The Skype extension goes through web pages and looks for phone numbers to light up so you can click and call.
All of these extensions — good ones, bad ones and the outright dangerous ones my neighbor often sees — slow the browser down.
Modern extensions, explained Belfiore won’t be able to “hook into Edge in ways that are not manageable. You will always able to uninstall one and it really will uninstall. That’s not true of IE today.” It will also stop third-party companies, services and malware from hiding inside the code.
Not your father’s browser
That all makes sense. If Microsoft is willing to forgo legacy apps in favor of a leaner, meaner and safer browser experience, then why let anything get in its way? Yet, even if Microsoft Edge gets a pass on extension support (for a little while), the real litmus test will be how it functions as an essential browser.
Interestingly, Microsoft Edge will support perennial performance offender Adobe Flash at launch, albeit with a special version optimized for the new browser (something Google Chrome already does). Windows Update will handle all Flash updates for the system, a situation unchanged since Windows 8.
According to Microsoft’s own research, computer users spend 70% of their time in the Web browser. Will they like Edge’s spare design? “It’s not our intent to make it stark or make it negative, but certainly our intent is to make the content the hero,” said Belfiore.
What about the unusual placement of the address bar? Though Microsoft very briefly toyed with the idea of having no address bar, the Edge team eventually decided to put one in, although with a new location: When you open a new tab, it’s more or less in the center of the screen. That placement may look very familiar to some users.
DeBruyne told me Microsoft hadn’t received any feedback from Google regarding the somewhat Chrome-like address bar placement, which also works just like Chrome’s omnibox: Type in what you want (it supports natural language queries thanks to Bing) and Edge will treat it like a search — u