Despite all appearances, Microsoft insists it hasn't lost interest in Web browsers.
It has been years since Microsoft declared victory over browser pioneer Netscape Communications, and a long time since it last released a full upgrade to Internet Explorer (IE). Now critics say the company is fulfilling old predictions that it would embrace the browser and extend its capabilities, only to extinguish it.
Redmond rejects that notion, saying instead that the long wait for an IE update is an indication of the work it's putting into the next incarnation of the browser. If Microsoft's plans pan out, it will unveil dramatic new features that will take Web browsing to an entirely new level—in many ways stepping beyond the browser completely.
Because those features will be available only to people who also use the next version of Microsoft's Windows operating system, currently dubbed Longhorn, browser functions are expected to create a powerful reason for customers to upgrade.
More IT news stories
Gateway to offer customized PCs again
Desktop Linux a vehicle for pirating Windows
Red Hat acquires AOL's Netscape server software
RFID gets a reality check
"It's not accurate to say we're not doing work in this space," said Michael Wallent, general manager of Microsoft's Windows client platform and documents team. "My team, which is very large, has been working very hard the last three and a half years....We have not blown off IE at all. We care deeply about this market. It's supercritical."
Web developers and surfers alike might be forgiven for having suspected Microsoft of caring less than deeply about the browser.
Microsoft's last major browser release was in August 2001. The company in the summer of 2003 discontinued its browser for the Macintosh and said it would issue no more standalone versions of IE. Last month, the company released new IE security features in its Service Pack 2 (SP2) for the Windows XP operating system, but said only XP users would get those improvements.
Once praised for its standards compliance, IE is now denounced by Web developers as outdated. Meanwhile, there has been an outcry over the browser's lack of standards support for basic Web technologies like CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and the PNG (Portable Network Graphics) image format, and for its lack of popular features like tabbed browsing.
At the heart of the controversy is Microsoft's longtime insistence that the browser isn't a standalone piece of software, as it is most commonly thought of, but merely a feature of the Windows operating system. In future releases of Windows, starting with the long-awaited Longhorn, Web browsing functionality will be embedded deeply within applications, reaffirming the Windows interface rather than the browser as the center of the computing experience.
Microsoft "would like to see rich application development more onto the client," said Paul Colton, founder and chief executive of Xamlon, which offers development tools that use the same approach Microsoft is taking with Longhorn. "They don't own the Internet. They own the desktop."
Microsoft, which makes most of its money from sales of its Windows operating system and Office application suite, refuses to characterize the Web browser as a threat to those businesses. But years ago, the computer industry and Wall Street alike saw that a highly functional Web and browser could indeed reduce the importance of both the OS and desktop applications, drawing consumers away from them.
That potential has been realized in some areas of computing, for example, Web-based e-mail. Microsoft anticipated that threat early with its 1997 purchase of Hotmail.
More comprehensively, the software giant met the Web threat embodied by browser start-up Netscape, which once commanded better than 85 percent of the market. Microsoft acquired browser technology from Spyglass that it turned into Internet Explorer. Through a relentless campaign that was later found to have violated antitrust law, Microsoft made quick work of Netscape, to the point that IE amassed by many estimates better than 95 percent of the browser market.
Despite an antitrust conviction, Microsoft emerged from its courtroom ordeal with its browser strategy essentially intact.
Critics in and out of court complained that Microsoft's quest for browser dominance was an effort to neutralize the threat of an open Web though an "embrace, extend, extinguish" strategy. By extending the technology beyond industry standards, the company could compel Web developers to code their sites to IE rather than to those standards. As a result, competing browsers would fail to render significant sites and remain marginal competitors.
Microsoft weathered vociferous campaigns by Web developers to support standards published by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium). Now many of those same developers are urging surfers to dump IE in favor of standards-compliant browsers like the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox.
Perhaps worse for IE's reputation, security advisers including the U.S. government's CERT (Computer Emergency Readiness Team) have warned against using Microsoft's browser. (CERT praised SP2's security improvements, but half of Windows users can't access them without paying for an upgrade to XP.)
How much the Web as a whole is heeding the call to dump IE is unclear. Some Web site metrics suggest incremental drops in Microsoft's market share, but no studies have shown significant losses for IE across the Web.
In the absence of general feature updates, some suggest that Microsoft is acting as though it didn't care much about IE's market share, particularly as it's measured by consumer behavior.
"I don't think there is any question that the browser at this point has been somewhat neglected by Microsoft," said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk. "Regardless of the attention that Firefox and Mozilla have garnered, Microsoft still looks at the fact that their market share has not declined in a significant way...Consumers matter—they are the folks out there driving things like Google toolbars. But for Microsoft, the business customer is still 80 percent of revenues, and that is what they are most concerned with and apt to protect."
For both business and consumer computing, Microsoft is devoting its resources to Web-based technologies that could mute the browser's impact, specifically those that give an advantage to Windows-based systems.
For example, the company is hoping with Longhorn to create a whole new class of Windows applications that offer better ways of doing the same type of things that browsers do today. When it unveiled Longhorn at a developer conference last October, the company had Amazon.com demonstrate how such a program might work, offering a prototype camera store that could use Amazon's database, but offer a far more interactive and visually exciting way of navigating the store.
"When we started Avalon back in 2001, we wanted to break the distinction of whether something was running inside the browser or outside," Microsoft's Wallent said.
He said Microsoft doesn't see the majority of Web sites deciding to jump free of the browser. The kinds of information most often accessed on the Web—news, stock quotes and shopping, are likely to stay there even in Longhorn.
Instead, Wallent said Microsoft is trying to make it easier for companies that already write desktop software to connect to the Internet. It also will help those Web companies that would like to have some additional software running on customers' computers—something photo sites like Ofoto are already doing.
Colton's company, Xamlon, essentially shares that vision. It is bringing to market a version of the XAML prior to Longhorn. Applications written in Xamlon's version can work within a browser, but only within Windows and, at least for now, only within Internet Explorer.
Colton said that while such an approach is good for Microsoft, it can also be good for consumers and businesses. "The experience is richer for the user; that's a fact."
Microsoft also defends such an approach.
"That's not (us) trying to take the Internet and make it private," Wallent said, noting that the company is not going to turn around to try to get all Web properties to develop in Avalon.
Of course, Microsoft needs only a small percentage of Internet companies to offer Windows-specific tools to have succeeded in giving the platform a leg up in a world in which all operating systems with standards-compliant Web browsers are equal.
The browser threat
On the other hand, it is a world where the browser usurps more and more of the tasks handled today by the operating system. That has long been seen as the threat that the browser poses, a fear reignited with rumors that Google could expand from search and e-mail to browsing and instant messaging, essentially providing a platform that could be accessed equally on Windows and non-Windows PCs.
Wallent said he is not worried that there will come a day where programs like Office and AutoCAD can be written in such a way as to easily run on any type of computer. "I'm not sure I quite buy into that vision," Wallent said.
But that still leaves as an open question how much work Microsoft will put into IE.
Given its emphasis on Avalon and XAML, O'Grady questioned whether it was worth Microsoft's investment in research and development to pursue development of IE—a platform that will lose importance if Longhorn performs the way it hopes it will.
At the same time, he questioned the degree to which Microsoft had neglected the browser.
"Still, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me," O'Grady said. "If Microsoft just added a few new features like tabbed browsing, it would automatically eliminate a lot of the basis for criticism that it is taking right now. I don't know technically what is involved. But I can't see why an organization the size of Microsoft can't do that. The only conclusion I can come to is that the browser is not the important platform to them that it once was."
CNET News.com's Mike Ricciuti contributed to this report.