Microsoft may have unwittingly started a revolt against its Internet Explorer (IE) browser by discontinuing it as a standalone product and blurring the future of the current version, IE 6.
Earlier this month, Microsoft admitted it would not release any new versions of IE as a standalone browser. Instead, the software giant said that the next version of IE will be an integrated part of the Windows operating system.
The move has led to unrest among companies that rely on their customers to access services over the Internet and led some analysts to conclude that IE's virtual monopoly and status as the de-facto browser standard is about to come to an end.
The first signs of trouble came when IE programme manager Brian Countryman let it slip in a 7 May online chat that IE6 "is the final standalone installation" of the browser, which is used by more than 90 percent of Web surfers.
Less than a month later, UK online and telephone bank First Direct, a subsidiary of HSBC, sent an email to its 600,000 online banking customers, telling them to ensure that they had downloaded the latest version of Internet Explorer before 30 June. According to the email, Microsoft would stop making IE available as a separate download for people using Windows 95 or 98. Microsoft has denied this, saying First Direct made a mistake.
But Paul Say, head of e-marketing at First Direct, told ZDNet UK he is concerned.
Say explained that First Direct is due to update the security certificate on its secure servers and unless users had upgraded to the latest version of IE, they would receive "odd messages" questioning the authenticity of their connection. Four weeks after asking Microsoft for advice on the subject, he is still waiting for a response.
"This is a tricky one for us because we have no control or influence that we can exert," said Say. "The dates on the server certificate need to be compatible with the certificates on the browser. If this is not the case, a warning will be displayed. We don't want our customers to be worried about Internet banking."
James Governor, principal analyst at research firm RedMonk, said that if banks' customers turn to other browsers instead of upgrading to the latest version of Windows, then developers and banks and other large e-commerce operations may be forced to start more standards-based code to support those browsers in preference to IE. "Banks and most Web-oriented firms tend to support the status quo, which is Microsoft Windows and IE," he said.
Governor believes that these types of organisations, like many other companies, have not really tried to build "pure standards-oriented" Web sites in the past, instead testing their products for IE compatibility only. "This decision might serve to drive a second wave of browser and Web site standardisation," he said.
Michael Silver, research vice president at Gartner, said the whole point of organisations building browser-based applications is that this should enable them to avoid worrying about compatibility issues between different operating systems, by supporting Macintosh and Linux computers as well as Windows. Companies have undermined this element of the Web by limiting their support to IE, he said.
However, Microsoft recently said it would stop developing IE for the Mac, and this move combined with the browser's integration into Windows might make Web developers more interested in supporting cross-platform standards, Silver said.
"People will think, 'are the applications I'm writing for the browser browser-agnostic, or are they IE applications -- which makes them Windows applications?' If I want an application to run on a Linux desktop or Macintosh desktop, maybe the way to do that is to ensure it runs on Mozilla, Safari and the other main browsers," Silver said. Mozilla, Safari, Opera and other browsers claim to have better standards support than IE.
Governor agrees: "The bottom line is that consumer-facing Web sites have been remiss in supporting the latest standards, and unresponsive to the needs of many users. It's time to reassess that approach, and Microsoft's decision is a good spur to doing just that."
First Direct said it will make sure all its customers have safe access to their accounts, but so far is not committing to a definite course of action. "It a tough one because there are always rumours about what Microsoft is going to do. The approach we have taken is that if the customer is going to go there, we will go there. Once Microsoft shares what it is up to, we will make a call on how to continue," Say said.
Microsoft has already confirmed that it will no longer make standalone versions of IE, and said "nothing has yet been decided" about the future of support for IE 6, the browser's current standalone incarnation. Lars Ahlgren, EMEA support policy manager at Microsoft, told ZDNet UK that he knows it is "very unwise to force customers to upgrade" to a new operating system, and admitted that "if you lock in your users or customers, you will lose out".
However, he is adamant that in order for "browser technology to truly thrive and develop, it needs to be part of the operating system -- that is why we have made this choice".
But analyst Silver said that by integrating IE and Windows, Microsoft is doing exactly what it warns against, by forcing customers to upgrade their operating systems. "If Microsoft only releases IE as part of the operating system, (this) means the next major version of IE will be part of Longhorn. If a vendor or bank wants to use a specific feature of that version in their product, it means that only Longhorn users will be able to use it," Silver said.
The real impact of Microsoft's decision will not be apparent "until we get a better sense of how widely open-source and alternative desktops are adopted," said Governor, who expects Microsoft to suffer some 'unwelcome side effects' as customers are "driven into the arms of the competition".