Coming to Windows 10: More browsers, not fewer

As the company transitions its Edge browser in Windows 10 to one that's Chromium based, it also plans to maintain support for IE11. For IT admins, the variety of browser iterations could get confusing.

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Microsoft

Microsoft will continue to include Internet Explorer 11 (IE11) and the original Edge with Windows 10, according to a company program manager.

In a video recorded for this week's Microsoft Build conference, Fred Pullen, a principal program manager on the Edge team, filled in some of the blanks about the "IE mode" to be inserted inside the under-construction Edge based on Chromium. (Chromium is the open-source project whose technologies already power Google Chrome and other browsers.)

Details of how enterprises will manage "full-Chromium" Edge and its IE mode have been scant thus far. When Microsoft announced IE mode earlier this week, it said only that it would share "more details on deploying and managing Microsoft Edge later this year."

How Edge and IE11 work together now

Pullen spent the first quarter of his time walking viewers through the convoluted history of IE and how Microsoft supported backwards compatibility with older versions using various "modes" that emulated, for instance, IE6 within IE8 or IE9 and IE10 within IE11. He then explained how the current Edge worked with IE11 and its multiple modes to produce what he called a "two-browser experience."

"Our guidance for years has been as you upgrade your web applications to modern standards, you can ((alleviate)) yourself of the dependency on Internet Explorer," said Pullen. "When we introduced Windows 10, our suggestion to customers was to standardize on Microsoft Edge using EdgeHTML as your modern browser and fall back to IE11 as needed just for backward compatibility."

That "fall back to IE11" would be automated by IT. They would create an Enterprise Mode Site List of URLs to apps and sites that required some of those IE compatibility modes, or IE-associated technologies, such as ActiveX, which Edge didn't support. IT could also instruct every intranet site to open in IE11.

When a worker tried to access a site on the list in Edge, IE11 opened instead, loading the whitelisted site; thus the two browser experience Pullen described.

But there were problems with what Microsoft did, Pullen acknowledged. "This is a jarring experience. It's two different browsers," he said. "Even if you're using the Enterprise Mode Site Lists to automatically pop up the appropriate browser at the appropriate time, it's still two different browsers and it's a confusing user experience."

More than one IE11 in Windows 10?

According to Pullen, Windows 10 - and presumably Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 as well, since those older OSes are slated to get full-Chromium Edge, too - will still include the stand-alone IE11 browser when Edge and its IE mode reach the Stable channel.

"What we're adding in Internet Explorer mode is just a couple of policies," Pulled said. "We have one policy in Microsoft Edge that decides what the default IE integration level is. So you can decide to keep the two-browser experience. You can decide to run IE11 as an application just as you can today with Microsoft Edge."

Elsewhere in his presentation, Pullen seemed to preemptively knock down any talk that IE11 - as a separate application - would vanish. "I also want to reassure you that Internet Explorer is not going away," Pullen said near the end of his video. "Internet Explorer is considered a component of the Operating System and follows the life-cycle of the Operating System on which it's installed. So in Windows Server 2019 for example, Internet Explorer 11 is supported until 2029 (emphasis added)."

His phrasing was almost word-for-word from Microsoft's documentation on IE's support lifecycle, which states: "Internet Explorer is a component of the Windows operating system and follows the Lifecycle Policy for the product on which it is installed."

Even so, Pullen's pledge was far from ironclad. His "support," for example, could easily - and legitimately - hinge on the inside-Edge IE mode, not the stand-alone application. It's all about what he meant by that word.

Pullen hinted that IE11 (the application) would remain as part of Windows for some time to come even, though Microsoft's long-term goal is to purge it from the OS. "We want to make sure that we start to restrict when and where and how Internet Explorer 11 is instantiated," he said.

Computerworld has assumed that Microsoft would want to get rid of IE11 (the application) as soon as possible. Pullen made that stance difficult to defend.

More than one Edge in Windows 10?

Windows 10, at least, will also sport more than one Edge browser, Pullen contended.

"We do have to add a policy deciding which version of Microsoft Edge you would prefer Internet Explorer to bounce back to," Pullen said, referring to the back-and-forth between the two browsers. "In other words, if I've chosen to launch Internet Explorer 11, and [I'm] using that switch to IE11 app mode, I need to know which version of Microsoft Edge to switch back to.

"It could be that in your environment, you're happy with Microsoft Edge on EdgeHTML, and you want to be able to fully test Microsoft Edge on Chromium before deploying, that's fine," Pullen continued.

Participants in Microsoft's Edge Insider program - the preview program for the full-Chromium Edge - may run multiple versions of the browser on a device, whether two or more of the previews or one or more preview and the original Edge. (The latter is what Pullen talked about when he mentioned "EdgeHTML," the name of that version's Microsoft-made rendering engine.)

It was unclear whether multiple Edges would be available and supported once the full-Chromium version is finalized. Pullen implied that at some point users would no longer see two when he referred to returning to EdgeHTML-based Edge while still testing the full-Chromium Edge.

A bit later in the video Pullen doubled down, again limiting Chromium Edge to a preview phase. "You need to decide, 'Is it okay if we choose the Beta version of Microsoft Edge on Chromium, or do I fall back to Microsoft Edge using EdgeHTML if the Beta version is not available?'" Pullen posed.

But what's the end game?

Two IE11s, two Edges. Is Microsoft really going to let its browsers multiply like rabbits?

In the short term, yes. But the long game is to wean users off IE entirely. "We want to give you the tools that you need to be able to limit how and when and where your users get to Internet Explorer, and Internet Explorer Mode is an important step in that journey," Pullen said.

"Obviously, as you upgrade your web applications to modern standards, you can continue to limit more and more and more where Internet Explorer is running," he added.

The trouble with that message is it's one Microsoft has been transmitting since Windows 10's mid-2015 launch and the early 2016 reduction in browser support that triggered massive desertions from IE's user base.

Pullen acknowledged as much. "There's still a need for Internet Explorer even though our guidance for years has been ... ((to alleviate)) yourself of the dependency on Internet Explorer," he said.

This story, "Coming to Windows 10: More browsers, not fewer" was originally published by Computerworld.

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