Of the three most recent versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer, the one used by more individuals and businesses worldwide, according to recent analytics, is the oldest: IE6, which is notorious for interpreting Web pages in the manner that seemed most convenient to Microsoft at the time. Many Web sites anxious to support newer and more efficient rendering standards remain reluctant to drop support for IE6 rendering entirely, simply because it may still be in use by as much as one-third of the Web-browsing public.
Now that the movement by Web architects to engineer a collective dumping of IE6 has generated its own Web site, the move is on to spur Microsoft itself to join in. After all, the success of IE8 could depend on businesses' willingness to dump IE6. But in a plea to Web architects to understand the difficulties those businesses face in dumping any old software and adopting any new ones (and avoiding Firefox in the process), Microsoft IE8 product manager Dean Hachamovitch wrote for his team's blog that Microsoft simply cannot drop support for IE6 while support for the operating system that delivered it -- Windows XP -- continues.
"The engineering point of view on IE6 starts as an operating systems supplier. Dropping support for IE6 is not an option because we committed to supporting the IE included with Windows for the lifespan of the product," Hachamovitch wrote. "We keep our commitments. Many people expect what they originally got with their operating system to keep working whatever release cadence particular subsystems have. As engineers, we want people to upgrade to the latest version. We make it as easy as possible for them to upgrade. Ultimately, the choice to upgrade belongs to the person responsible for the PC."
Hachamovitch linked to a page that showed Microsoft's typical "Mainstream" product support lifecycle extending five years beyond that product's original introduction, with "Extended" (paid) support extending an additional five years beyond that. However, last April, Microsoft specifically extended the "Extended" support program for XP until 2014, after finally terminating its Mainstream support cycle long after it had originally intended.
The very sudden rise in popularity of the netbook form factor, coupled with the fact that XP is the latest shipping version of Windows that many netbooks can even run, has triggered a situation where Microsoft simply can't kill XP. As a result, it appears, with IE6 irrevocably tied to XP, the company's hands may be tied with regards to the old Web browser. If Microsoft can't kill IE6, some businesses in the private and public sectors are asking, why should they be tasked with the job?
In his blog post, Hachamovitch linked to a fascinating transcript of a quadrennial policy review meeting of the US State Dept. last July 10, led by Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy. In that transcript, an unidentified State Dept. employee steps up to the microphone and asks the secretaries why the Dept. can't use Firefox. Perhaps not the expert on Web browsers, Sec. Clinton deferred the question to USM Kennedy, who responded that the problem has to do with costs. But Firefox is free, said the employee. "Nothing is free," Kennedy responded.
After the laughter in the room (according to the transcript) subsided, Kennedy continued, "Yes, you're correct; it's free, but it has to be administered, the patches have to be loaded. It may seem small, but when you're running a worldwide operation and trying to push, as the Secretary rightly said, out FOBs and other devices, you're caught in the terrible bind of triage of trying to get the most out that you can, but knowing you can't do everything at once."
Sec. Clinton herself then weighed in on the subject, borrowing an image -- though not the entire metaphor -- from Yahoo: "When you go to the store and you buy, let's say, peanut butter and you don't realize you've got two jars already at the back of the shelf…I mean, that sounds simplistic, but help us save money on stuff that we shouldn't be wasting money on, and give us the chance to manage our resources to do more things like Firefox, okay?"
Betanews has asked Microsoft for further clarification on the company's intentions for Web browser support, which may be forthcoming.