It’s taken Microsoft half a decade to come up with a major upgrade to its browser. Why did it take so long and is it too little too late? Oliver Lindberg grills Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of the Internet Explorer team
The year is 2007. The smoke of the first browser war has dissipated and Internet Explorer is ruling the world unchallenged. People have lost interest in other browsers. Vista is about to launch, ensuring Microsoft’s dominance for decades and decades to come.
Of course, this isn’t true. IE may have triumphed over Netscape, but it’s taken a massive beating of late. Towards the end of IE6’s Methusalem-like lifetime of five years, the browser had more holes than Swiss cheese, and web surfers flocked in their millions to fresh and innovative competitors such as Firefox and Opera. Internet Explorer remains the most widely used browser, yet its usage share has dropped from about 96 per cent in 2002 to about 85 per cent today. It’s no coincidence that the long-awaited release of IE7 preceded the release of Firefox 2.0 by a mere six days.
Thus Dean Hachamovitch hasn’t got the easiest job in the world. He’s the general manager of the Internet Explorer team at Microsoft and his daily routine includes reading comments about IE on the web. One of the recurrent questions is why it took so long to come up with a follow-up to IE6. Dean explains that the main focus was on servicing (in fact, the Internet Explorer team was disbanded shortly after the release of IE6). But then the world changed dramatically. “In 2001, security wasn’t as critical an issue as it is today,” Dean explains. “If you told people in 2001 ‘you’re going to be on your way into work and you’ll see or hear headlines about security issues in software’, they probably would have laughed. It just wasn’t as pervasive a part of the world. The whole Web 2.0 thing is pretty powerful, we’re better connected and more people have broadband. And when the world changes that way, software has to change and respond in some ways and lead in others. I say we recognised some of those world changes and responded with XP SP2 and IE7. Look at the anti-phishing filter and the RSS platform we built around IE7, for example.”
That’s all well and good, but five years is still a very long time on the web. “Well, we released IE6 in 2001, and then, in 2003, we heard ‘hey, we need more from Internet Explorer in respect to security’, so we did XP SP2. After the release of XP SP2, we heard ‘that’s good but we want even more and we want more than just security’, so we did IE7. So, if you look at the overall gap of five years, there are actually several sub-releases in there. The critical thing is that customers wanted more – we heard them, we turned around and focused on delivering IE7.”
IE7 is a good browser (“This was our basic mantra as we started IE7: safer, easier and more powerful for developers.”). In particular, RSS features and Quick Tabs are neat, but a lot seems to be inspired by the competition, most notably Firefox. Dean Hachamovitch says he’s met several of the Firefox people face to face and has a lot of respect for them. In fact, the IE team sent a cake to their competitors when they unleashed version 2.0, though whether this was an altogether altruistic gesture, we’ll never know. While he’s reluctant to talk about other people’s products, Dean admits he looked at different browsers when developing IE7 (“It’s arrogant not to”) and tried them out in different scenarios.All feedback is good feedback
One thing that I’ve learned over the last few years of working on this product is that nothing is unanimous
The slagging off of Microsoft has become an international sport no matter what it produces, and since IE6 made a lot of people lose confidence in Microsoft, feedback is far from positive. “Every day, I go up to Technorati and do searches on IE7 and read what people are blogging about,” he explains. “What’s wild to me is that I can read consecutive posts that say ‘they didn’t do enough’ and ‘they did too much’. One thing that I’ve learned over the last few years of working on this product is that nothing is unanimous.”
Microsoft caters for millions of customers, and striking a balance is crucial. “Different people want browser updates at different speeds,” Dean says. “In Las Vegas in March at the Mix conference, Bill [Gates] talked about our commitment to the browser, and during the open mic session, someone said, ‘please don’t ship a browser every year – I can’t handle that.’ Think of all the customers ... on the one hand, they’re designers, and at the other extreme are people who say, ‘I’m using an extranet in order to get my billing done and I’m scared. I really don’t want browser changes because this is how I get paid’. Meeting the balance between moving standards support forward, maintaining compatibility with the web as it works today, and increasing security, is a real challenge.”
IE7 is more standards-compliant, but it doesn’t fully support the CSS2 standard, which annoys many a developer. “I hear you and we’re not done,” Dean responds. “We believe in standards as a great way to achieve interoperability. We did over 200 behaviour changes that we blogged about. That’s just the CSS changes, not all the other things that we did. We’re more standards-compliant. Is anyone fully standardscompliant? No, because the standards are moving forward all the time. I know there are more changes that we need to do, and we will do.”
We need candid negative feedback in order to know what we need to do better
It must be disheartening if your work is met by so much criticism. “We need that candid negative feedback in order to know what we need to do better,” Dean says. “It’s kind of you to consider that we actually are people and we do have emotions, and I think there are a lot of people who don’t get quite get that yet. I can’t really do much about that. Our blog has been a helping mechanism for the individual people on the IE team to say ‘look, here’s what we did, here’s why we did it, here’s what we’re thinking’, and hear comments back and make changes as appropriate. It’s that power of the internet. To me, that’s part of the joy.”Talkin’ bout an evolution
Dean Hachamovitch has been excited about computers ever since he was a kid. “When I was eight years old, my father brought home a great big computer in a box and my mother was very concerned, saying ‘this is terribly expensive, it’s not a toy for a child to play with’. My father plugged it in and said ‘you should figure this out’. That was liberating – it was amazing. I still feel that buzz more than 30 years later when I come into work.” Dean has contributed to several Microsoft projects, from Word for Macintosh to the online games business. He works on IE because he’s excited about what the internet can do for people. “I remember when my children were born, being able to go down the hall in the hospital and find a computer that was on with an internet connection and send mail to all the people who were interested. At the time, it was a relatively small community, yet powerful. So I work on IE because I see the potential there.”
It looks like we won’t have to wait another five years for the next release of IE. The team is already working on the next versions and Dean thinks browsers will experience a great evolution: “In the past, browsers were very simple mechanisms for sites to project some text and some graphics. They have evolved to be a fundamental part of everyone’s daily experience. Browsers will need to step up and do more and be more effective assets for end users and developers to really make the most out of the web.” One thing’s for sure: the winner of the new browser war is the consumer. Microsoft can’t sit back and enjoy an IE monopoly any more. Browsers will push each other further than ever before and come up with new features and capabilities more frequently. And Dean will continue to have a lot of feedback, positive and negative, to read up about for the foreseeable future. That’s the beauty of competition.