IE7 May Impact E-Tailers' Sales

The automatic updating of most browsers will stress Web sites' help desks like nothing before, one Web services exec says, meaning sites may risk losing sales because they're busy with the upgrade during the critical holiday season.
Microsoft's decision to push Internet Explorer 7 to users with its Auto Updates mechanism will mean "inevitable" problems for Web sites during the critical holiday selling season, the chief executive of a Web services firm said Friday.

"I applaud what Microsoft's done with IE 7, and the browser works very well," said Richard Litofsky of Rockville, Md.-based cyScape. "But even the best software needs time to work out things once it's in the wild."

The automatic updating of most browsers -- Internet Explorer controls 83 percent of the world's browser market according to the most recent data from Net Applications -- will stress Web sites' help desks like nothing before, Litofsky claimed.

"Virtually overnight all these sites are going to be running a whole new platform."

Even sites that have prepared for IE 7's launch -- again Litofsky applauded Microsoft, saying that its still-ongoing test program has been a great help to site owners and designers -- will have trouble, if only in an spike in support queries from customers. "At the end of the day, even with production sites set up now, they've had nowhere near the level of testing [necessary] to work out all the possible configuration problems," Litofsky said.

Every other browser upgrade, whether Microsoft's or one by a competitor, has been phased in slowly. Because Microsoft will automatically update every Windows XP SP2 system to IE 7, however, Litofsky thinks this update will be a "stampede."

Microsoft announced in July that it will use Windows' Auto Updates to upgrade users to IE 7 when it releases later this year. At the same time, the Redmond, Wash. developer also posted tools aimed at enterprises for indefinitely blocking the update.

"This isn't even about IE 7," Litofsky argued. "IE 7 could be bug free and sites would still have these issues. In a typical browser roll-out, a site may get dozens of hundreds of customer support [and access] problems. With IE 7, though, it'll be that times several thousand."

To compound the problem, IE 7 is likely to land during the holiday selling season, when online retailers are busiest and their Web sites handling the most traffic. Although Microsoft has not set a release date -- it's only promised IE 7 for Windows XP SP2 before the end of the year -- but it has said that the browser would launch soon after Windows Vista's version is wrapped up. Microsoft is still shooting for a November release of Vista, and its bundled IE 7, to volume license customers.

"The holiday season is busy enough without the IE 7 update," Litofsky said.

Sites not able to handle customer support questions or proactively deal with compatibility problems risk loosing money during the crucial final two months of the year. "In e-retail, the bulk of the money that carries the company [through the rest of the year] is made in the last two months," said Litofsky. "Sites need to take steps to prepare, and be ready for problems."

Naturally, Litofsky pitched his company's BrowserHawk software, which automatically detects incoming browser versions and forces users to update to the site's minimum requirements. "If [sites] have the right tools in place, they can weed out most of the issues."

Microsoft itself tacitly recognizes that sites may have trouble recognizing IE 7, or properly rendering their pages to the browser. Last week, it updated a tool that IE 7 users can apply so that the browser emulates IE 6.0 when it reports to Web sites.

"Not all sites will properly account for this change [to IE 7], and as a result they will be in for a rude awaking once millions of users are running around with IE 7," concluded Litofsky.