Microsoft Cutting Back On IE?

Asa pointed out an interesting CNBC piece regarding cutbacks in what looks like contractors on the IE team:

One of the units already seeing cutbacks is Microsoft’s sagging browser business. A report in the Seattle Times says 180 contract workers were told last month that their services would not be renewed. Just yesterday, researcher Net Applications reported that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser registered 68 percent market share in December, down from 74 percent in May.

If this is true, and I think it is likely as CNBC is a rather reputable source of business news, I predict Trident’s days are numbered. As I pointed out back in November, Balmer suggested they might look at WebKit. I should note I do not think this will have any impact on IE 8, which is nearly complete. They could of course choose Gecko which would save them from needing to work with Google and Apple (which might freak out some government regulators).

The other very real option is to either license Opera’s Presto engine, or simply buy Opera which would give them some strength in the mobile market. I think Microsoft would prefer to buy simply because of the mobile implications. Opera has a decent foothold in the mobile market. They would still have the expense of developing a rendering engine but instead of playing catch up they would be much more “ready to play”. This would save them the overhead expenses of trying to cram several years of development to simply catch up to the other browsers. Since Presto is proprietary they still can utilize their other proprietary technologies without leaking any code to the open source community. As I said in the past, keeping things proprietary is important to Microsoft’s web strategy.

Poor standards compliant, performance, bugs lingering for years, security issues, are all issues that have plagued this rendering engine. The final nail in the coffin might end up being a recession and the need to cut costs.

Of course it’s possible Microsoft may not be renewing these contractors since IE 8 is nearly done and it will simply slow down IE 9 development, but I don’t think it’s likely considering the speed the competitors are going. I don’t think Microsoft will fall asleep at the wheel a second time.

So I’d like to adjust my statements back in November regarding Microsoft’s use of WebKit. I said before that it was unlikely. If this news is true, I think it’s becomes very realistic they will drop Trident. Maybe it really is as busted internally as we’ve all suspected for years.

There will still be fierce competition between WebKit, Gecko, and Presto regardless of what happens. Innovation and competition are essential to a healthy internet. This in fact makes it much more competitive since the one in last place in terms of supporting the latest in standards would suddenly catch up overnight.

Enough speculation for now. Lets see what turns out to be fact, and what turns out to be CompSci Fiction.

Edit [1/3/2009 @ 9:40 PM EST]:: Via Asa, apparently the layoffs were actually the MSN Homepages team, not the IE team as CNBC suggested.

10 thoughts on “Microsoft Cutting Back On IE?

  1. The question is why does Microsoft need IE? Just look at silverlight. It’s an alternative to flash / java. But most importantly it is an alternative to ActiveX. Does microsoft need html when it can use silverlight for everything? Some sites can’t even be accessed without Flash.

  2. @Anonymous: Yes Microsoft needs IE. It’s Microsofts mechanism for allowing Windows users to utilize the Internet without freeing them from Windows. By having it’s own browser with proprietary extensions Microsoft ensures users can gain the benefits of the Internet yet prohibits them from becoming to OS antagonistic. This is critical since they sell OS’s not browsers.

  3. David Bloom has a great point. The other major point against MSFT buying/using Presto in the future would be the requirement for all of MSFT’s customers to re-do all of those webpages for Presto instead of Trident. I don’t see that happening.

  4. It could well be that MS is busted because of their promise of backward compatibility. They can’t go forward because Trident is basically legacy software and seemingly impossible to fix. Nor can they just ‘switch’ engines because apparently this would break existing MS ‘compliant’ sites and intranets too much. This is of course just speculation… Maybe they could just buy the internet :)

    Anyway Mozilla.org did the right thing when they threw Netscape 5 out of the window and started (almost) from scratch. MS can’t do that now, it’s too late.

    Possibly they could use an open source engine and code all the old IE bugs/quirks into it. I wonder how much work that would be. Certainly not a job anyone would like to take on. But then their standards compliance mode would actually be – standards compliant.

  5. If MS choose a FOSS browser engine, does that mean they have to eventually release all code they write that integrates that engine with the Windows operating system? I’m thinking there’s a lot of funky glue over and above any or all of the standard Trident components such as the parser, layout and scripting engines. Can you really see MS adopting an FOSS engine when they would have to divulge all that ‘secret sauce’ glue?

    How would they get around the ActiveX issue?

    Surely they are smart enough to realise that Trident forms the core part of a developer API (both offline and online) that makes their platform a helluva lot more attractive? In that respect they’d be shooting themselves in the foot to abandon it.

    Thirdly, let’s not forget the huge marketing/reputation hit they would take by adopting their first ever massive chunk of well-known FOSS code?

    Unlikely.

    They can wait for years after IE8, and probably will. They don’t necessarily need to have the dominant platform when there are a lot of developers out there willing to write code just for IE such as that on many corporate intranets.

    I predict more of the status quo. Don’t get your FOSS hopes up.

    It is folly to focus on the decline of IE instead of the strengthening of Firefox. How about focusing more on some unique features in Firefox? There’s been too few of those IMHO lately. At least, too few genuinely innovative ones. Off the top of my head, the awesomebar is the only recent unique feature I can think of and that has been copied already. Inline spell checking is good but not really earth shattering.

  6. @pd

    You say they don’t need to have the dominant platform when there are a lot of developers out there willing to write code just for IE. True, there are many such developers – but only because IE *is* the dominant platform. If it ceases to be such, then writing sites and applications that work only on IE will not be sustainable. You can afford to ignore the other browsers when their market share doesn’t amount to much. But now, this report says those browsers make up nearly a third of the market – can anyone really afford to ignore so many potential customers? And if IE’s share continues to drop, below that 50% mark? Then what?

  7. I was going to point out that unless they’ve tripled the team size in the last 2 1/2 years, there aren’t 180 contractors on the IE Team. Almost all of the contract workers are concentrated in QA and they only form about 35% of the team or so.

    The MSN Internet group is on a separate subcampus and has nothing to do with IE, which is technically part of the Windows group.

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