Microsoft Windows Exec Talks IE, Firefox

Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part interview. In part two, BetaNews asks more questions including what browser interface Schare himself uses; surprisingly it's not IE.

With no major updates to Internet Explorer scheduled until Longhorn arrives in 2006, Microsoft has found itself having to evangelize the current merits of IE while competition heats up from newcomers such as Firefox.

Gary Schare, Director of Windows Product Management at Microsoft, sat down with BetaNews to discuss the future of IE, including the possibility of tabbed browsing, Mozilla's "free ride," and why Microsoft feels it is better equipped to handle security.

BetaNews: There's been a lot of talk that no standalone release of IE will come until Longhorn - that is a completely separate downloadable release. Therefore Microsoft is exploring ways to issue updates through add-ons, like third party developers do. Please expand on this.

Gary Schare: First and foremost, before Microsoft even gets to adding things to IE, there are hundreds of software vendors around the world that are adding value to IE today. We had done a relatively poor job of making people aware of that ecosystem of add-ons so it was hard to find the really interesting ones.

If you went to the download page on the IE web site, you'd see security patches and that's about it. So what we've done last week is put together a Web site as part of Windows Marketplace that gives you a view directly into the IE add-ons. Ranging from toolbars that plug-in to IE to completely new browsers built on the IE platform like Maxthon, Netcaptor, Avant Browser, and many others. That in and of itself is news to a lot of users of IE, who have maybe heard of Google Toolbar or the MSN toolbar, but beyond that weren't really aware of all the neat stuff that's out there.

That was our initial effort, to say "Hey we have to promote this stuff better and really help these developers who are doing all this great work reach out to more users." But it also opened our eyes to the fact that this is an opportunity for us, as a company, to use that mechanism as an added value as well. And if you look at MSN toolbar, they've done numerous revs of that over the last year or so, and they are seeing great success and plan to do more. It's proven to be a successful mechanism for them to get functionality out to users.

BetaNews: Are we talking about top level, or more in-depth features? For example, a tabbed browsing type option and more advanced CSS support, or would these additions lie on the interface level, such as the toolbar?

Gary Schare: It's more the latter. For architectural reasons, it turns out you can't just add tabs via an add-on into the IE app itself. You can get tabs by running a different app like those other browsers that build on the IE platform, so it's a nice option for people.

We've looked at whether you can add tabs through a browser helper object or some other way of extending IE, and it turns out you can't. Then of course the Web developer stuff is also that core platform changes and wouldn't be deemed an add-on. The challenge there, as we have been kind of public on our blogs when discussing with Web developers, is backward compatibility.

We could change the CSS support and many other standards elements within the browser rendering platform. But in doing so, we would also potentially break a lot of things. We have to strike the balance of what's okay to break and what shouldn't we break, and how do we roll this out in a way that does a clean break, if you will. Right now we're aiming for Longhorn for that because we think it affords us the opportunity to say, "Okay a few things have changed, if you want your apps to work with Longhorn you may have to make a few changes." Versus just blanket upgrading the installed base with some new features, and "Oh by the way we broke a bunch of stuff."

And that is actually an interesting discussion in and of itself, with respect to some of the other browser competitors, who haven't had enough browser share in the past to have to worry about those things. Once you start to get enough browsers out there, and people start to build sites that work with them, then you're kind of restricted and hamstrung in terms of how you make changes.

That's something I think the Mozilla guys have had a bit of a free ride on, until now. Every time they ship a new version they break all their extensions and break a bunch of things because they were in beta. Now they've got a product out there that's a 1.0, and people will look at it as "Okay this is 1.0, I'm going to count on this and I'm going to expect some backwards compatibility for some time forward."

And that has not been the hallmark of open source software in general. If you go look at OpenOffice for example, that's one of the things that has not proven out.

We're committed to that, and we get criticized for it on some dimensions. They say "You're not innovating as rapidly," Well that's true, but when you have actual customers who rely on your software you have those tradeoffs and we’re very diligent on how we make those tradeoffs.

BN: The press has been covering the Firefox 1.0 release, and I'm sure the timing of talking with folks and getting the word out about IE wasn't purely coincidental. How does Microsoft feel about Firefox now that it's out the door, and especially with all of the media uproar about the browser wars starting again?

GS: One of the hallmarks of Windows is this very, very broad ecosystem of developers who build on the Windows platform, and that has been one of the things that has made Windows so successful over the years. So from one standpoint we're happy to have even more developers adding value onto the Windows platform and giving users a choice of software to pick.

Sometimes developers build things that Microsoft doesn't do, and other times they build things that compete directly with things Microsoft does do. In this case, it's something that competes with something we offer.

We think the end of the day IE is the better choice, from the topics we've talked about around security and around innovation. There's other elements we haven't even touched on yet around site compatibility and around enterprise management, centralized control and security settings, single log on for enterprise domains, the sort of things that are critical for people to think about. So we do think IE is the better choice, but we are happy that our customers do have a choice, and competition does drive things forward so it's a good thing.

BN: Recent press reports have mentioned IE market share dropping, even though it holds a strong lead at 93 percent. Where does Microsoft see its market share by the end of 2005? Firefox developers are hoping to reach 10 percent by that time. Do you see usage dropping as more people look for alternatives?

GS: It's hard to make a prediction of where things are going to go. Given our publicly stated strategy of the next major release of innovation is in Longhorn, somewhere between now and say 2006; what we have today is SP2 and all these great add-ons from all these third parties.

There's going to be some class of early adopters that go check out the new thing and may or may not switch back depending on what their experience is. We think that getting the first set of early adopters is a lot easier than getting the next set, and then crossing over into the mainstream is pretty difficult. But these guys do have a lot of energy and they're certainly pushing hard and they stated their goals. We'll have to see what happens.

BN: One of Firefox's biggest advantages is quite a vocal community of supporters. The team raised over $250,000 for a New York Times ad. This is one area where Microsoft has not made a big effort with IE - to evangelize the browser. What does Microsoft plan to do in this area? Any full-page New York Times ad for IE planned?

GS: It's a good question. We definitely feel right now that the level of understanding of IE in SP2 is not where it should be. The installations of SP2 are frankly going great. I don't know what numbers we're public with right now, but I know its over 100 million a couple weeks ago.

Again, if you compare how much Firefox has gotten out there, talking all about the 5 million downloads of the preview release, at the same time we did like 100 million of SP2 with the new version of IE. We do operate on a slightly different scale, a different order of magnitude frankly.

I have to agree, we do have more work to do to make people aware of the value they're getting in IE today, what they get in SP2. Whether that means an ad in the New York Times is hard to say, probably not likely from that perspective, but we are putting in a lot of energy. Every OEM system from a PC maker now with XP will ship with SP2 and it's important from a security perspective that people get there. Forget about browser wars and browser competition, its just to be safe - to be as safe as possible; you can never be 100% safe, but to be as safe as possible getting SP2 is the right thing to do.

Continue to the second part of this interview.

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