IE unplugged

Some people like to complain about all the new features that come with new versions of software. Microsoft recently took the unusual step of removing a feature from Internet Explorer, but don’t get the idea that they’re doing us a favor.

Some people like to complain about all the new features that come with new versions of software. Microsoft recently took the unusual step of removing a feature from Internet Explorer, but don’t get the idea that they’re doing us a favor.

For many years, IE has supported Netscape-style plug-ins, which are client-side programs that can be invoked from a Web page using the <EMBED> tag. IE’s support for ActiveX controls was always preferred, and ActiveX development was always more polished. There were a few cases of commercial applications available only in plug-in form and some other popular programming techniques that rely on plug-ins. But developers and users could always rely on IE supporting plug-ins.

Not any more. News stories came out recently about Internet Explorer 6--the version that comes in Windows XP--and how it no longer supports plug-ins. (In fact, Service Pack 2 for Internet Explorer 5.5 also disables plug-in support in that browser.) I asked Microsoft why they would do such a thing. Their response, according to Waggener Edstrom, a PR firm representing Microsoft, was that they aren’t saying why. They did say this:

  • Microsoft made the decision not to support old style Netscape plug-ins in IE 6.0 and IE 5.5.
  • Content creators can continue to create plug-in components that are built on ActiveX technologies, as has been the case since Internet Explorer 3.
  • Microsoft is continuing to work with key partners to ensure the best online experience for its customers.

You’d think that supporting plug-ins was a mistake to begin with. But of course, their unwillingness to explain why they are removing plug-in support indicates that there’s no good reason for it. They just don’t want people writing or relying on plug-ins anymore. Microsoft’s knowledge base article Q303401 gives some further explanation of the issue.

A recent AP story in the Wall Street Journal quoted Microsoft spokesman Jim Cullinan as saying that removing plug-ins was intended to increase security, although the article doesn’t elaborate on how it would increase security. The same story quoted Rob Enderle of Giga Information Systems as speculating that it had become "more costly to support Netscape-style plug-ins." Once again, there was no elaboration. Neither explanation makes sense to me, and if there really were a good reason I think Microsoft would have told me.

Most of the press attention for loss of plug-in support has gone to Apple’s QuickTime and Sun’s Java Plug-in, but in fact these are small potatoes in terms of actual Web usage. By far the most popular use of a plug-in is for background sound. Have you ever gone to a Web page, probably of the "my first Web page" variety, and gotten an annoying jingle, probably a MIDI file, playing in the background? Such pages almost certainly use a plug-in.

I know how I feel about pages like this, and it’s tempting to think that doing away with such sounds is worth all the trouble caused by eliminating plug-ins, but I’ll leave that judgment to historians. In the meantime, if you actually want to "fix" this on your own pages, you can use IE’s proprietary BGSOUND tag.

I look at QuickTime and Sun’s Java Plug-in and I have to wonder why they never made an ActiveX control to begin with. They really should have considered this possibility. But very few sites use these controls, especially the Java plug-in, so few users will be inconvenienced. Microsoft's knowledge base article also lists Finale MusicViewer by Coda Music Technology, and AlternaTIFF by Medical Informatics Engineering. Within a couple of months all of these vendors will offer ActiveX versions, Web pages will be updated to use them, and the issue will be done with, but some people will have another reason to resent Microsoft.

It’s worth pointing out that Microsoft is hardly the first company to remove a widely implemented browser feature. Netscape 6 abandoned proprietary models for layers and other features that began in Netscape 4. There are still a lot of Web pages out there that use these features. Luckily for developers, nobody in the real world actually uses Netscape 6.

Over the long term, Microsoft treats developers really well. I honestly think this is the single biggest reason for their success. It’s rare that they do something like this that inconveniences absolutely everyone, including users and developers, as well as some competitors. And it’s one thing for them to make a change like this in a new major version of the product, but to do so to an existing version and through a service pack is quite inconsiderate. Service packs are supposed to be for bug fixes. If plug-ins are a bug that they just fixed, they should at least come out and say it. But Microsoft’s silence on their reasons for killing off plug-ins says all that needs to be said.

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