Internet Explorer's woes can be put to good use

Whether it's safer to stick with Internet Explorer or switch away, a middle way has its advantages

After Google came under attack from China, national bodies in both France and Germany have recommended their citizens avoid Internet Explorer. Yet only the Germans have a word for the main global side effect: schadenfreude.

There is little that adds to the gaiety of nations quite so much as Microsoft being caught with its trousers down. Perhaps it's the company's tendency to ponderous pomposity that enhances its deflation; perhaps it's the sheer irritation many feel at its relentlessly upbeat assessment of its own merits.

None of this should blind us to the company's genuine achievements. Both Windows and Internet Explorer are reasonable products, equal in many respects to their peers. And don't forget Firefox has had plenty of security problems of its own — not all of them silently installed by Microsoft.

However, there has been another, less widely appreciated side effect: a modest but significant number of press releases from companies saying that the French and Germans are over-reacting, and that switching from IE can cause more problems than it solves. Think of the support costs. The unexpected security vulnerabilities. The incompatibilities. The training requirements.

These people are united in their concern for companies who may unthinkingly enter the dangerous world of alternative browsers. They are also united in their business model, which involves selling extra security software and services to Microsoft users. It's a good business. One can see why they're keen to keep it.

Moreover, their proposal — that any change is laden with unforeseen danger — has merit for conservatives, popes and civil servants. We haven't polled the Vatican, but we know that IE6 remains popular in Whitehall. However, we would like to suggest a middle way between switching and sticking, one with benefits even for outfits with a very buttoned-down attitude to desktop IT.

It's simple. Let those users who wish, run IE and an alternative browser in parallel. There'll still be the risk that the alternative browser will be struck by some dreadful attack while IE remains safe, but evidence suggests this chance is moderate indeed. If the users can't understand or use the other browser, then nothing has been lost. And there's no problem if the other browser proves incompatible with some internal systems — except, perhaps, a bit more pressure to build those systems to proper standards.

On the plus side, if IE breaks or is attacked, the users have a backup in place and ready to fly. It could even result in fewer support problems, as the more experimentally minded will try both browsers when an online service is proving problematical, narrowing the issue down.

As always, the best response lies in plurality, in keeping options open. If the current flap over IE, for all its hype and schadenfreude, does nothing but convince companies to change a few rules and try something new, it will have been worth it. Is gut, oui?