Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which has been around since 1994 and once owned 90% of the browser market, appears to be on its way out for good.
Microsoft last week began a process that will, eventually if not immediately, result in it canning Internet Explorer (IE), the browser it's built since 1994.
Although IE survived this initial round of deprecations – or depredations, depending on your browser viewpoint – there's no guarantee that the final edition of IE will die a natural death in its bed.
Microsoft could kill it at almost any time.
IE's share of global browser activity has been shrinking, and sinking, fast. According to U.S.-based analytics company Net Applications, IE's share fell by nearly 40% between June 30, 2019 and June 30, 2020. If it continues that rate of decline, IE will account for just 2.8% of all browsing worldwide a year from now.
The browser's fall has been long, slow and with one exception, regular as clockwork. Computerworld's records of Net Applications' browser share data go back as far as January 2005, when IE controlled almost 90% of all share. Since then, it's been downhill for the browser, with only a recovery that started at the top of 2012 and ended two years later, to interrupt the trend line.
Net Applications' numbers don't count every instance of IE. In fact, because of the way the metrics vendor measures share, it's almost certain that it undercounts enterprise usage, perhaps substantially so. In other words, IE may be much more widely used than the numbers indicate.
Absent numbers from Microsoft itself, however, Net Applications' are as good as any. And those show IE running toward not just obsolesce – it's already there, been there for years – but to extermination.
It's no surprise that Microsoft has started to withdraw support.
The end begins
Last week's support changes were relatively minor, but still telling.
On Nov. 30, the Teams web app will stop support IE11. Then, as of Aug. 17, 2021, all remaining Microsoft (and Office) 365 apps and services will no longer support IE11.
While that was a clear shot across IE11's bow and meant to wean enterprise users – the customers who run Microsoft (and Office) 365) – off the browser, Microsoft made clear that, for now, IE11 would remain on the support list. "We want to be clear that IE11 isn't going away," Microsoft said in the unsigned post that announced the support changes. "Our customers' own legacy IE11 apps and investments will continue to work. Customers have made business-critical investments in IE11 legacy apps and we respect that those apps are still functioning."
This promise of IE11's longevity was reminiscent of Microsoft's long-standing position that "Internet Explorer is a component of the Windows operating system and follows the Lifecycle Policy for the product on which it is installed." By that definition, IE11 will be supported on Windows 10 for the same length of time as the operating system itself.
The Microsoft (and Office) 365 support stick has been wielded by Microsoft before. Editions of the perpetual-licensed Office – Office 2010, 2103, 2016 and 2019 – drop connectivity support with Office 365's services starting in October 2020. Microsoft's goal? Shove customers to subscriptions, since Office 365's applications will never lose that support.
The Redmond, Wash. giant is throwing its weight around in a similar fashion as it denounces IE11. This time, though, the goal is to prod enterprises still using IE to abandon the browser, if not immediately then as soon as possible.
(Something important to remember: Microsoft's said that the lapsing support for Teams (November) and the rest of Microsoft 365 (August 2021) applies to Edge's IE mode, too. See this support document.)
When a deadline isn't one
Microsoft's not cutting off customers cleanly. Microsoft 365 support for IE11 won't completely vanish on Aug. 17, 2021 – the apps and services will continue to run within IE11 – but over time the browser will become less and less compatible with those apps and services. "After the above dates, customers will have a degraded experience or will be unable to connect to Microsoft 365 apps and services on IE11," Microsoft said. "For degraded experiences, new Microsoft 365 features will not be available or certain features may cease to work when accessing the app or service via IE11."
Microsoft has defined end-of-support (EOL) like this before – frequently, in fact – but as in those instances, for IE11 it declined to specify a timeline, or spell out what feature or which functionality might vanish first from, say, Outlook on the web, or second from Teams. It likely doesn't even know at this point.
The important part of support, the only support for IE11, really, is security patches for newly-reported vulnerabilities. Microsoft has said nothing about when, or even if, it will halt those.
Support goes 'poof'
Microsoft may have started to tug on IE11's plug, but it's not pulled it out.
So, when will it? At virtually any time.
There's nothing stopping Microsoft from ending all IE11 support whenever it feels like it, even though customers may believe differently, even though the company's own policies say it will support the browser as long as it does the operating systems of which IE is a component.
A support policy is no guarantee, and neither is Microsoft's word. The past is all the proof needed. In August 2014, Microsoft ordered Windows users to upgrade to the most-recent version of IE, and to do that by January 2016. The mandate scratched a year of support from IE7 (which was part of Windows Vista), four years from IE8 and IE9, and a whopping seven years from IE10 (a Windows 7 component).
Only IE11's support remained intact.
There is a more recent example – much more recent. If Edge – the original Edge, the one using the EdgeHTML rendering engine – was a component of Windows 10, and it was, how could Microsoft set March 9, 2021, as the date that browser receives its final security update? (That's what it did in the same announcement of IE11's support curtailment of last week.)
By all rights, the original Edge should be supported until the EOL of Windows 10 1909 and Windows 10 2004, the last two versions that came with that browser. (This fall's Windows 10 20H1 upgrade will be the first to include the newer, Chromium-based Edge.) Those dates? May 10, 2022, and Dec. 14, 2021, respectively. Microsoft is stopping old Edge's support 15 months early for Windows 10 1909 and 9 months earlier than promised for Windows 10 2004.
(And simply because the old and new versions of Edge carry the same name shouldn't let Microsoft off the hook here. The two are entirely different browsers from the ground up, as Microsoft has itself stressed.)
The point is that Microsoft has withdrawn previously-pledged support before, and could easily do so again. IE11 is no more immune than earlier iterations of that browser or Edge have been.
It could even use the same rationale to excuse the changes in policy. "Outdated browsers represent a major challenge in keeping the Web ecosystem safer and more secure, as modern Web browsers have better security protection," asserted an IE marketing executive in 2014 to explain why Microsoft would soon bar older versions. Microsoft could simply repurpose "outdated" as grounds for shutting down IE11 support; the browser has now gone untouched for more than four and a half years, and is even more behind rivals like Chrome, Chromium Edge and Firefox than that indicates.
Microsoft will undoubtedly give customers fair warning before IE11 falls off support. Based on past endings, figure six months minimum between announcement and deadline, but probably 12 or more months.
Will Microsoft give up on IE? And when?
The answer to the first is easy: Yes, at some point. Contrary to protestations, IE isn't forever. Even Microsoft's pledges of continuance seem less than rock solid. "Customers have made business-critical investments in IE11 legacy apps and we respect that those apps are still functioning," Microsoft said.
But when? That's the question.
A year and a half ago, Computerworld's best answer was to point to the January 2020 EOL of Windows 7, arguing that by then, Microsoft would have "given enterprises plenty of time to get out from any under legacy burdens" shouldered by Windows 10 and its inclusion of IE11.
That didn't happen.
Clearly, Microsoft has consulted with enterprise customers, reviewed its Windows telemetry, or both, and decided that IE11 is still necessary. When those conditions flip, when the number and importance of those customers are outweighed by the hassle of maintaining IE, Microsoft will cut the browser loose. You can bet on it.
IE may have today, but there's no covenant that says it will have tomorrow.