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Microsoft and the Stench of Internet Explorer

In the old days, we sometimes referred to Microsoft’s browser as “Internet Exploder.” Although it wiped Netscape all over the floor to become the number one browser on the planet, it wasn’t because of quality. It was about marketing strategy. Unfortunately Microsoft also went its own way when it came to web standards, meaning developers had to code their sites a little differently to be compatible in Internet Explorer.

It wasn’t fun.

But Internet Explorer ruled the roost. Indeed, when Apple and Microsoft made that deal in 1997 that resulted in the latter investing a $150 million in the former, Internet Explorer became the default browser on the Mac too.

With the arrival of Firefox, an open source browser built upon the ashes of Netscape, Microsoft’s Internet dominance began to lessen. It was first released in 2002 as Phoenix, morphed into Firebird the following year and became Firefox in 2004.

With the promise of better performance and closer adherence to web standards, disgusted Windows users began to make the switch. On the Mac platform, Apple gave up on Microsoft when it failed to update Internet Explorer after the first OS X compatible version was released in 2001. Safari debuted in 2003, and has had steady updates ever since. Over the years, Apple has continued to boast that Safari delivers faster and more accurate rendering than the competition. The reality is that fractions of a second among browsers hardly make much of a difference anymore.

But a more humble Microsoft came to realize that Internet Explorer wasn’t getting the job done, that its tainted reputation resulted in lost market share, despite the ongoing improvements. In the past, when Microsoft failed at something, they would simply change the name and the marketing strategy. But Internet Explorer has had steady updates in recent years, and has become more competitive.

But things are poised to change.

Starting with Windows 10, now in public beta but due this summer, there are actually two browsers included. So there’s an Internet Explorer 11, said to be the best version of all. But there’s also something called Project Spartan that is supposed to be faster and more compatible.

So with this week’s update for the Windows 10 Tech Preview, build number 10049, Project Spartan appears in its first incarnation. To launch it, instead of clicking the app icon with the telltale “e” in the taskbar, choose the globe icon instead.

According to Microsoft the Cortana personal assistant — Microsoft’s answer to Siri — is included if you want to attempt the voice recognition. I’m not in the least interested.

The new “inking” feature allows you to write or type comments on a page. As with Windows 10’s support for multiple virtual desktops, Microsoft is busy aping Apple. So there are Reading List and Reading View capabilities that are intended to mirror Safari’s Reader and Reading List. You can also save documents in PDF format, something you’ve been able to do on a Mac for years.

To Microsoft, playing catch up is nothing new. And, of course, there’s the promise that Project Spatan “just works,” and haven’t I heard that one before?

Now I wasn’t expecting perfection in the beta release. But Windows 10 is already running fairly quickly in a virtual machine on the latest Parallels Desktop on my iMac. It didn’t seem, at first blush, that Project Spartan, or whatever it’ll be called when it’s released, launched any faster than Internet Explorer, nor did it deliver pages more swiftly. I’ll be fair, though, and wait for the final release on a native Windows machine to see how it runs in the real world.

Neither browser matched the level of performance of Safari on OS X Yosemite, but again this is a virtual machine, and even coming close is an achievement of sorts.

As a practical matter, nothing stopped Microsoft from changing the browser engine in Internet Explorer and crafting the new features into that app. By turning a page and delivering the experience with in an app with a totally different name, once again Microsoft is clearly pulling another marketing stunt.

Stunts also appear to rule the day when you examine the fine print for those promises about people running Windows 7 or 8/8.1 getting free upgrades to Windows 10. Microsoft’s legal team recently released all sorts of silly terms and conditions that essentially state that this freebie promise applies strictly to consumers and not to businesses, OEMs, and other categories of customers that may or may not be clearly defined. At one time it was even claimed that those running pirated copies of Windows would be allowed to upgrade, but now it seems that their installations will still not be regarded as genuine. That will surely not encourage people to become legal.

I do understand that Microsoft makes a hefty amount of money from the sale of Windows licenses, and I would not be so bold as to suggest that they just give operating systems away except to improve the platform’s reach. Apple gets away with it because OS revenue is quite low compared to the sale of new Macs, and having as many of you as possible running the latest and greatest system release makes it easier for developers to add at least some of the new features.

Microsoft? Well, it appears they are still finding their way in a new and different world. But it has yet to be determined whether giving away Windows 10 to some of their customers, and releasing a new browser to replace— or exist beside — the old one, will somehow boost the company’s bottom line, or make the company seem warmer and friendlier. I think Windows users are too smart to fall for this nonsense.