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8/16/2014
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IE's Bad Reputation: Will Microsoft Rebrand?

Internet Explorer hasn't been able to shake its reputation as a buggy browser because users refuse to upgrade to cleaner versions -- despite their complaints. Microsoft says rebranding is on the table.

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Microsoft's last few versions of Internet Explorer have been relatively well received, buoyed partly by the company's increased investment in Web standards and developer support. Nevertheless, IE remains in many ways a tainted brand, with old, buggy, and less-secure versions overshadowing the progress in recent releases.

According to web tracking firm Net Applications, various versions of IE account for around 58% of all PC web traffic -- but only 28% of IE users (and only 16.9% of PC users overall) are using IE 11, the newest version. Over 44% of IE users rely on IE 8 or earlier. Compared to IE, rival browser Chrome has achieved almost double the market share growth over the last year.

Microsoft's IE team, then, faces a problem: Older, more proprietary versions of IE gave the browser its poor reputation, but even though newer editions are improved, many users continue to use -- and complain about -- the old versions. Thanks to this user fragmentation and upgrade inertia, IE's latest and greatest features aren't reaching a critical mass of users.

[Here's why one expert says you shouldn't worry: Facebook Will Track Shopping Habits.]

In a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session this week, IE engineer Jonathan Sampson admitted Microsoft has considered rebranding IE in order to distance the newest versions from old, criticized predecessors. The move has "been suggested internally," he wrote, adding, "Plenty of ideas get kicked around about how we can separate ourselves from negative perceptions that no longer reflect our product today."

Sampson said these internal debates will continue. "The discussion I recall seeing was a very recent one (just a few weeks ago). Who knows what the future holds," he wrote.

Internet Explorer pinata (image: Javier Aroche/Flickr).
Internet Explorer pinata (image: Javier Aroche/Flickr).

Industry watchers have been asking for years if IE's public image can be rehabilitated. For its part, Microsoft has embraced a variety of tactics to persuade users to upgrade from aging, less secure versions.  A few years ago, the company's "browser you loved to hate" campaign playfully addressed IE's lowly reputation while pointing out how newer versions had improved.

Since then, the pace of improvement has only hastened, a point IE engineers emphasized during the Reddit Q&A. This month's Patch Tuesday added new F12 developer tools, for instance. The company also plans to add support for more browser extensions, which could erase one of IE's most notable shortcomings compared to competitors such as Chrome and Firefox.

Microsoft recently announced that starting in 2016, it will release security updates only for the newest edition of IE on any given system. The company also recently said that starting next month, it will begin blocking outdated ActiveX plug-ins in IE. With many older versions of IE relatively vulnerable to cyber attacks, such moves could make Microsoft's browser more secure. Then again, Microsoft's attempts to convince Windows XP users to upgrade also have included frequent references to the superior security features found in its newest products. Despite Microsoft's campaign -- and four months without a security update -- around a quarter of PC users still rely on XP.

Microsoft has attempted to accommodate customers who can't easily upgrade. During the Q&A, for example, one developer pointed out that IE 11 includes an Enterprise Mode that allows businesses to use a sandboxed environment to safely run old line-of-business apps built for IE 8.

CEO Satya Nadella has said that one way Microsoft will get customers to use the latest versions of its products is to provide that software on more platforms -- such as Office for iPad. And yet when asked during the Reddit session whether IE for iOS or Android was in the pipeline, the IE team replied, "Right now, we're focused on building a great mobile browser for Windows Phone." Microsoft supports some IE development in OS X but has not released a version of the browser for Macs in more than a decade.

You can hear more about this article on this week’s episode of InformationWeek Radio. We’ll be talking with the author at 2:00 PM EDT on Tuesday, August 26 — we hope you’ll join us! Register here.

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Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio

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Mathew25
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Mathew25,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/18/2014 | 12:44:58 PM
IE's buggy reputation was earned
I had to smile when I read that IE's reputation suffers "because users refuse to upgrade to cleaner versions...."   We're now at version 11; it's taken that many attempts to create an IE browser that is as stable/reliable as Chrome or Firefox?   It's the USERS who are responsible?  :-)  heh

Over the years web developers such as myself have spent endless hours writing work-arounds for the IE browser.   It's no surprise it has lost market share, despite its position as the default install on every windows box.  
cafzali
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cafzali,
User Rank: Moderator
8/18/2014 | 12:37:04 PM
Re: IE "the afterthought"
@Whoopty In fairness, there have been periods where Firefox updates just simply didn't work reliably for me on Windows 7, forcing me to go to Chrome for regular browsing. So I think it's an issue that plagues all of them, at one time or another, depending on how quickly they're updating and how well the testing goes. 
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
8/18/2014 | 12:31:31 PM
Re: IE "the afterthought"
I think Cafzali has hit the nail on the head. Tying the browser with the operating system might have given Microsoft a dominant position back when its OS' were considered the pinacle of desktop and laptop computing (and computing in general to some extent, since mobiles were hardly smart back in Xp's hayday), but the problem is that we see so many businesses and individuals not upgrading their operating systems now, so chances are, they don't upgrade anything, especially when the browser is so intrinsically linked.

Other browsers however, have a much more continual update feel to them. I'm not sure I've ever noticed updates to my Chrome or Firefox installations. Perhaps it's the more cumbersome update procedures with much more defined versions for IE, that has caused it to lag? 
cafzali
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cafzali,
User Rank: Moderator
8/18/2014 | 10:41:28 AM
IE "the afterthought"
I think many of IE's problems can be traced back to the decision to tightly integrate the browser and the OS. By doing that, Microsoft knew that it would obtain a dominant position simply because of Windows' dominant position and decided that meant it didn't really have to work hard to keep it relevant. 

While that's still true to some extent, given the fact that many corporate users are forced to use it, few consumers are willingly opting for it. I find it baffling beyond belief that it has been slower to load and render pages than its major competitors for a long time. 

Lastly, Microsoft also suffers from the poor performance of Windows Mobile. Chrome is an environment that can extend to the mobile space for anyone who uses any mobile platform except for Windows Mobile. I haven't kept up with the latest news, but as recently as February, Google would only say it was "investigating" creating a version for Windows Mobile. Firefox is available for Windows Mobile and reviews I've seen are positive. But with fewer overall users for Windows Mobile, it's not a platform that's going to inspire innovation. 
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
8/17/2014 | 10:54:16 PM
Re: Who thought that excuse up?
@stotheco, I am with you. I left IE completely years ago and never plan to go back. I am not quite sure what Microsoft would need to do to get me ever to come back. Bundle it on my next laptop and lock it so I can't download any other browser?
stotheco
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stotheco,
User Rank: Ninja
8/17/2014 | 2:54:19 PM
Re: Who thought that excuse up?
I agree with you. It seems like a weak excuse. Personally, I have used Internet Explorer before and gave up because it was simply such a pain to use. So much of a pain, in fact, that it has turned me off from ever using it again in the future.
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
8/16/2014 | 12:36:32 PM
Re: Who thought that excuse up?
I haven't been an IE user since Firefox became popular in the early 2000s. And I think around 2009 I became a Google Chrome user. Since I use a Mac for my PC, I have very little exposure to IE.

I think its important for there to be browser choice for users. But Microsoft is going to have to get creative. Businesses do rely on IE and it's hard for them to upgrade with legacy applications depending on older versions of IE. 
catrachotech
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catrachotech,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/16/2014 | 11:43:01 AM
Who thought that excuse up?
So, Microsoft says their software is buggy because people won't upgrade to the better versions? 

Tjhat excuse didn't work the first version, and it should never work again! 

If we put up with this abuse, then when they come out with another new version tomorrow, of course they'll blame the bugginess of IE on the users again. 

 
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