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Spartan and You: How the Internet Explorer Discontinuation Will Affect the Web

  •  4-7-2015

Since 2007, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has dropped in usage from roughly 70% to below 20%, losing a significant amount of market share to Chrome. Since inception, Internet Explorer has been the source of user jokes and developer frustration. General consensus about the weighty browser has always been firmly planted in the negative, and Microsoft is finally willing to do something about it.

A Brief History of Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer wasn’t always considered to be a “bad browser.” In fact, up until Internet Explorer 6 it was lightweight, innovative and feature complete. Many saw its major competitor — Netscape — as cumbersome and buggy by comparison. It was only by IE6 that IE had developed a reputation for being sluggish, unresponsive and eccentric. To a significant extent, this is because Internet Explorer is unlike any other major browser in existence. When it was initially developed, it was hooked into the Windows operating system. Tech-savvy users might note that the Explorer.exe program is essential to the operation of the operating system — it’s the same code. Every other competing browser is a standalone product. By IE6 the browser was being bundled with the operating system itself, which gave Microsoft little reason to remain competitive with other browser options.

That in itself might not have been a problem, but Internet Explorer was developed with an entirely different set of Internet standards. In the early days of the web, Microsoft was able to spearhead web innovations. Later on, they simply stopped maintaining compliance with Internet standards because it was prohibitively difficult to make changes in. It took years for Microsoft to bring IE up to compliance, but by then it had already lost a significant amount of goodwill. Developers had spent the last few years struggling to ensure that their websites were cross-browser compatible, a problem they never should have encountered. Microsoft initially considered simply rebranding the solution, but then decided on the healthier move of replacing it altogether.

The Promise of Spartan

Microsoft Spartan

  • In comes Project Spartan. What we know of Spartan so far is that the browser has an obviously minimalist design esthetic, taking cues from Chrome.
  • It will be bundled with Windows 10 in addition to Internet Explorer to ease a smooth transition, and it will be both a PC and a mobile browser.
  • Though Spartan does include backwards compatibility for Microsoft-enabled sites, it will not support a multitude of legacy technologies — including ActiveX, which has been a security concern for some time.
  • Like Firefox, Spartan will have a library of extensions that can be used to alter the features that it provides.

Finally, Spartan will include some major upgrades, such as voice control and the ability to make, save and recover notes directly on websites. If reports are to be believed, Spartan is faster than Internet Explorer — but it remains to be seen how it stacks up to the competition.

Many of the above features have been introduced to catch up to the current leading browser, Google Chrome. But Microsoft’s Project Spartan will have the tremendous advantage of being bundled with and supported by the operating system itself. In the past, Internet Explorer was able to hang on by a thread simply through availability. However, It remains to be seen how well the dual engine setup will function, shifting between both legacy sites and modern sites.

The Consequences for Developers

Developers no longer need to worry about competing web standards, but in many ways Project Spartan should make web developers optimistic. Project Spartan isn’t just a push to recapture market share; it’s Microsoft’s way of integrating the mobile experience into the desktop experience. The new system emphasizes a clean message of interoperability and compatibility, making it easier for developers to create holistic site experiences across all platforms. Largely, developers themselves will not need to worry about the dual engine schema; as long as they are using modern web standards, the legacy MSHTML engine should never kick in.

Developers still holding on to legacy standards will need to begin updating their techniques. Legacy support may not be a permanent feature for Project Spartan; moreover, legacy features are a holdover that should no longer be needed. Modern standards are safer, faster and more efficient. Legacy support is reported to move back to IE5.5.

An indirect consequence of Project Spartan may be that the market will segregate itself again, should the browser be appealing enough to end users. Web developers may need to pay equal attention to four major browsers rather than focusing dominantly on Google Chrome, as many have been. This is a good practice in itself, but may still end up intruding on development cycles. As some users will still be using Internet Explorer, this shift actually introduces an additional browser that web developers will need to worry about.

Takeaway: The Headache Is Finally Over

What developers should really be excited about, rather than focusing on the removal of legacy features, is the increased move towards compliance. Project Spartan is entirely powered by a new rendering engine that was created with the goals of being compliant towards current web standards. Though Microsoft has tried to bring Internet Explorer up to compliance in the past, it has always been a difficult process for them because the standards were so firmly entrenched within its code.

While web developers may need to test their websites on each browser — and have just gained another browser that they need to test — it’s less likely that there will be any major cross-platform issues. Microsoft has stated that Project Spartan is “designed to work with the way the web is written today,” indicating that no serious overhauls to code should be required.

That being said, developers will still need to be on guard. Any new browser may have issues and quirks that need to be adjusted for. Though Microsoft’s new browser is a fork of Trident, Microsoft has noted that it has changed substantially over development.

Developers interested in learning more about Project Spartan can sign up for the Windows Insider Program to giver the browser a spin. Overall, Project Spartan is likely to be a positive influence for developers, allowing them to shed some of their clunky legacy techniques and providing them with faster, more standards-compliant rendering. While there are a few end-user concerns, most of them should not affect the actual process of development.

Picture by Masked Builder

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