Let me be very clear: IE10 is a great browser. Genuinely. For all of its missteps with Internet Explorer over the years, Microsoft takes one giant step with IE10 towards finally feeling like a proper, modern, HTML5-ready browser. Of course, it won’t fully close the “HTML5 gap” with the jackrabbit browsers that are updated every six weeks, but it will unlock A LOT of the HTML5 and CSS3 features that modern apps need.

How, then, can I possibly compare IE10 to the venerable and easy to hate IE6?

The problem actually does not lie directly with IE10. The problem is IE11. But before I elaborate, let’s review how IE6 earned its reputation.

Internet Explorer and Windows

While everyone universally dislikes IE6 today (are there any exceptions?), there was a time when IE6 was more liked than disliked. In 2004, IE adoption topped 95%, an all time high and a number that is unlikely to ever be matched by another browser again. Developers around the globe primarily built and tested websites in IE6 during this period in the early 2000s, and while the browser had its quirks (ahem), people were evolving the web in big ways with IE6.

Did IE6 achieve this success because it was an awesome web browser? Nope.

IE6 rose to prominence because Windows XP was the most successful operating system ever shipped by Microsoft. Every install of Windows XP created another IE6 user, and in short order, IE6’s dominance was complete.

Then, around 2004/2005, with the growing popularity of a little browser called Firefox, web developers remembered that the web was supposed to be about standards. It was supposed to be about writing code that worked for everyone with a web browser. Only then did the problems and pain of IE6 become obvious.

But even then, the problem with IE6 was not its technical failure to support standards correctly. The problem with IE6 was that it did not evolve for 5 years.

If IE7 had shipped in 2004, around the time Firefox began to gain traction, IE may have never lost its majority market share. If IE7 had shipped in 2002, a year after IE6 shipped, we may have never seen the birth of Firefox. It was IE’s stagnation and inability to evolve that created so much pain for developers over the last decade.

Importance of IE11

IE10 will be a great browser when it ships. The real question then becomes: when will IE11 ship?

IE must continually evolve if it hopes to keep pace with other rivaling browsers. If IE10 ships and sits for two or three years, it will look absolutely ancient next to browsers like Firefox and Chrome that are guaranteed to continue their rapid adoption of HTML5 standards. To avoid becoming the anchor on HTML5’s evolution, IE11 must succeed IE10 within at least two years.

“No problem,” you say. Maybe.

There is a troubling dark side to IE10 that could seriously hurt Microsoft’s ability to deliver IE11.

Metro and Windows 8

As you must know by now, Microsoft’s next version of Windows will offer a radically new application runtime known as “Windows Runtime” (or WinRT) that will support both .NET/XAML and HTML/JavaScript native apps. These “Metro Style” apps will give developers the ability to choose their preferred technology stack to create Windows software.

To support the HTML/JavaScript model, Metro style apps will be rendered using the Trident layout engine from IE10.

Think about what that means. The IE10 engine is going to be deeply embedded in Windows 8, providing a core application runtime for Windows software. And there-in lies the problem for IE11.

If IE10 is a core integrated part of Windows 8 and a core runtime for Windows software, how likely is Microsoft to change that runtime?

At the very least, we can assume that this deep embedding of IE in Windows means that the browser’s evolution is going to continue to be tightly tied to the operating system. Rather than entering an era where Microsoft evolves IE on a slightly faster annual refresh cycle, we may be headed in to the next long, multi-year refresh cycle for the IE engine. We may be headed in to similar stagnating conditions that made IE6 so painful.

"Further improvements to IE will require enhancements to the underlying OS." Microsoft said this in 2003, and it seems more true than ever heading-in to the IE10 and Windows 8 era.

IE10 is Great, But…

So while I welcome IE10 with open arms and celebrate Microsoft’s bold steps towards adopting HTML5 and CSS3 standards, I do so with both eyes wide open. Could Microsoft’s aggressive steps with IE10 have been primarily fueled by the need to have a capable HTML runtime for Windows 8 Metro apps? And once they have that app runtime, will they continue to feel motivated to aggressively adopt HTML5 and evolve IE? Time will soon tell.

As a web developer, I clearly hope that the IE Team uses IE10 as a stepping stone to even better things in an IE11 we see by 2014. If they don’t, IE10 will be a brief moment in time where IE competes as a modern standards-embracing browser before quickly starting to feel like the next in a long string of frustratingly out-of-date browsers.

Agree? Disagree? Sound-off in the comments.

About the Author

Todd Anglin

Todd Anglin is Vice President of Product at Progress. Todd is responsible for leading the teams at Progress focused on NativeScript, a modern cross-platform solution for building native mobile apps with JavaScript. Todd is an author and frequent speaker on web and mobile app development. Follow Todd @toddanglin for his latest writings and industry insights.

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