Explorer 7?

Today Microsoft, in fact Bill Gates himself, has officially announced Explorer 7, the fabled successor to Explorer 6 that everybody seems to have been talking about since 2002. Before jumping in the air from joy, let's see what Microsoft says and what it doesn't say.

A year and a half ago I postulated, in an article that should have been edited savagely, that Explorer 6's code engine (Trident) cannot be updated any more and that Microsoft therefore has to write a new browser from scratch, like Netscape had to do after Netscape 4's painful debilitation became clear for all to see.

This predicted rewrite hasn't happened (yet), and unfortunately the current announcements don't prove anything about my theory. Personally I'm curious if I was wrong or right, but it seems I'll have to have more patience.

Let's go to Gates's announcement. Here's the clue:

Building on those advancements, Gates announced Internet Explorer 7.0, designed to add new levels of security to Windows XP SP2 while maintaining the level of extensibility and compatibility that customers have come to expect. Internet Explorer 7.0 will also provide even stronger defenses against phishing, malicious software and spyware. The beta release is scheduled to be available this summer.

This announcement is embedded in a press release that emphasizes Microsoft's dedication to more security after the many holes found in its browsing software during the past year. Therefore this release should be seen only in the light of security concerns, and not of standards compatibility. Good enough, no one will object to enhanced security.

Nonetheless what web developers are hoping for is enhanced CSS and JavaScript support. That doesn't seem to be the purpose of the new Explorer 7, and neither Microsoft's press release nor the subsequent IE Blog entry says anything about this subject.

In short, the new Explorer 7 will not contain a new code engine. I doubt that we'll see any real CSS and JavaScript enhancement, except maybe to clean up a few small bugs. Neither does this release deserve a new version number. The "7" in Explorer 7 is a marketing trick, nothing more — but before you bash Microsoft for it, remember that Netscape and Opera did exactly the same thing earlier on. Be fair, just this once.

For a truly renewed Explorer we'll probably have to wait until Longhorn (or however it's called nowadays) becomes operational. My theory remains that a new Explorer needs a new code engine, and it makes sense for Microsoft to build this new code engine on the new platform.

Right now Dean Edward's JavaScript solution remains the best way to create a standards compatible Internet Explorer.

Nonetheless there is some hope. The very founding of the IE Blog, and the (for Microsoft) unprecedented degree of clarity and detail about the issues the browser team has to deal with, proves Microsoft's commitment to being clearer and more open. We can hope that the wishes and desires of web developers will be taken into account in the next real Explorer version.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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1 Posted by Chris Beach on 15 February 2005 | Permalink

Whilst I agree that MS have not released details of any CSS / PNG enhancements, the developer blogs have always indicated that these are coming. Gates was talking about security enhancements because this is what the press has focussed on when attacking IE6. To most consumers, PNG/CSS2.1 support is of little obvious importance.

I think you are perhaps jumping the gun when you suggest that version 7 is just a 'marketing trick.' It's similar to people assuming MS's AntiSpyware program will come at a cost (which it won't, as we now know) Let's wait and see, shall we?

2 Posted by Frenzie on 15 February 2005 | Permalink

If they greatly improve the interface (in terms of adding buttons and the text on right stuff even their old stuff is still better than Firefox's and only inferior to Opera's) by means of going to a sort of Maxthon approach, I think it would also justify a new version number and not just a marketing trick (although I think the interface is the least to worry about with all those alternative interfaces around).

3 Posted by Jim on 16 February 2005 | Permalink

> Whilst I agree that MS have not released details of any CSS / PNG enhancements, the developer blogs have always indicated that these are coming.

The ones I read all say the same thing: compatibility is paramount, and we can't commit to anything.

Feel free to point out counterexamples though.

4 Posted by George on 16 February 2005 | Permalink

> Feel free to point out counterexamples though.

From http://blogs.msdn.com/dmassy/archive/2005/02/02/365435.aspx#FeedBack Dave Massy's Blog:
"As I've said before we're going to be careful not to break compatibility for existing content not using the strict DOCTYPE."

He also writes "I'm saying that when we address issues in standards support and the changes have an effect on compatibility then those changes will only be enabled under the strict doctype."

Sounds to me like they'll continue to keep quirks-mode for backwards compatibility, and continue to add new support for pages with strict doctype definitions.

As much fun as it is to hate microsoft, it's nice to see such open communication in their blogs. Theres still a bit of marketing in the posts(how many times do I really have to hear how they beefed up security in SP2), but theres usually nice tidbits of information.

5 Posted by Jim on 16 February 2005 | Permalink

Er... those aren't counterexamples.

6 Posted by Michael Warwick on 24 February 2005 | Permalink

Search for 'Dean Edwards' in the IE blog entry above.