Exclusive interview: Microsoft talks IE8

19th Mar 2009 | 04:01

Exclusive interview: Microsoft talks IE8

The complete Internet Explorer discussion

Introduction to IE8

With Internet Explorer officially arriving, TechRadar caught up with Microsoft's John Curran to talk about IE8 and how it will cope in perhaps the most competitive market for browsers of all time.

Curran, the head of the Windows Commercial Business in the UK, explains in some depth why he believes IE8 is a competitive offering, why only parts of HTML 5 have been adopted and the difficulty in giving people what they need versus giving them what they want.

He also says that Microsoft is prepared to take on anyone in this area, plays down the market share loss over the past year and insists that any Internet Explorer product offers 'the best of both worlds' in terms of ease of use versus cutting edge browser technology. The full interview can be read below:

TechRadar: This is a big release for Microsoft in a competitive market - is there a lot of pressure on you to deliver with IE8?

John Curran: I look at this a little bit differently, we're terribly excited about it.

Internet Explorer has been a key performer for us for 14 or 15 years now and its always been a very competitive marketplace; there's a low switching cost at zero dollars and it's a simple thing to go an acquire a new browser. It's a click of a button on a website and away you go.

For us it's always been about how we get the story right; that we're delighting our customers, and at Microsoft customers is a broad category from everything between an individual user to an enterprise.

How do we make sure that we're developing a browser that really allows our partners, the billion websites that are out there to create truly rich, immersive and exciting experiences? And how do we build a browser that developers want to target and develop against? If we get that simple formula right fundamentally then we believe that people will continue to use and increasingly reach for Internet Explorer.

IE8 is really about developing a real world browser, a browser that just works the way people want it to work in the everyday way they are using them throughout their lives.

Browsers are increasingly important in the way people work, the way they play, the way they interact, from social networking to enterprise and e-commerce. So much of what we do gets consumed online. IE8 is a big step forward.

A step change

IE8 - a step changeTR: IE8 is a step change for Internet Explorer, how much of that change has been fed by the changes made by your competitors?

JC: This is always going to be a competitive marketplace, so fundamentally what we need to do is not focus on the competition but to focus on what our customers want and focus on consumers to make sure they are having a great experience.

Of course everyone is aware of the features [of competitors] it's hard to hide them! Anyone can download anyone else's browser and have a look at it.

That said, it's really about driving development in a few key areas. We want to make the browser faster – performance is important and we've taken that very seriously in IE8. In the past we've gotten feedback on [speed] and it's something we took very seriously. We've just pushed out side by side comparisons.

There are lots of tests out there today in terms of how people look at speed and performance; what we tried to do was to say how do I use the web and what are people's daily experiences?

And fundamentally what we've seen is optimising Internet Explorer for those sections' experiences. And so we've got, for me, when I look at that test, fundamentally speed of performance in terms of rendering and bringing up pages – which was tested against top 25 sites worldwide – all three of the top browsers are essentially at parity.

There are marginal fractions of a second difference, but for most of them you have to use stop motion pictures to capture when it renders. I think performance is important but what you have to do is in a real world setting from a consumer's point of view and ask 'is this going to make a difference?' You're talking a fraction of a second – and we might have won 48 per cent of the time, but we're on a par.

People won't see that thousandths of a second, what they are going to see is how far the browser is going to enable them to do the things that they want to do. Performance is a table stakes. Everyone has to get to a basic benchmark level and assuming everyone's there then it's about how do you enable people to accomplish what they actually wanted to accomplish?

It's not a browser for browser's sake – it's a browser to go and do the thing I wanted whether it's be entertained or get information, and that's where IE8 shines.

Fundamentally what we've done with WebSlices and accelerators and those types of innovations is to really change how people use and interact with the browser.

What you do see in our extensive research, through people opting in as well as focus group studies and usability tests, is what people do most frequently. We've optimised the browser to really do those things well.

WebSlices and privacy

WebSlices - ebay TR: You've touched on WebSlices - they seem very reliant on third-party support, are you worried that without that third-party support it simply won't work?

JC: Fundamentally, it doesn't worry me. Microsoft's history is around working very closely and collaborating with the breadth of the ecosystem, with our partners, and that's been true from the Windows days and true with IE.

Fundamentally, these are things that from our partners' perspectives they are going to see add a lot of value.

The development of WebSlices does a handful of things for our partners; it creates an easier and more persistent connection to their audience and that's attractive because that's a way of bringing people back to your site, building up site usage and obviously adding to that advertising traffic flow and all that kind of stuff. It's an efficient way of providing persistently needed updated info.

TR: So in the example of the eBay WebSlice – you subscribe to an auction and get live updates on who has been bidding, and so on…

JC: Exactly. That does two things; it reduces the bandwidth that eBay needs to accommodate, while at same time promoting people to bid more – it's a more efficient way of keeping up with their customers.

TR: Security is obviously a big deal in IE8 - with the inclusion of inPrivate Browsing and inPrivate Blocking…

JC: The other thing that really stands out in Internet Explorer as a history of the product as well as Internet Explorer 8 is the innovation around security. This is obviously a sector that's very important with more and more of our lives going online. It's another spot where IE is driving innovation, be it in IE7 where we were the first to bring out anti-phishing [functionality] – to the IE8 cross-site scripting, click-jacking and all of these emerging risks and being able to address those right out of the gate, right out of the box and integrated into the product.

Default to private?

IE8 - privacyTR: Has the default of IE8 moved on to people's privacy rather than actively sharing information? Do you need to switch on the privacy functionality?

JC: It is still a discrete decision, which it has been all along. What we wanted to do was to strike the right balance between usability as well as functionality. For a lot of people there's tremendous benefit that they get by sharing some of their identity; the ability to come onto a website that instantly recognises the user and see customisable content accordingly.

For most users in the majority of their browsing sessions it's a more valuable state to be in than it is to switch over to inPrivate, so it's a question of where you want to default people into. So we made the decision based on empirical evidence and people studies we have made.

TR: How do you go about setting those privacy defaults? Microsoft is a company that has both software and an advertising business as well, so surely that creates a desire to not do something that would hurt that revenue stream?

JC: From a Microsoft perspective, our view is that we want to put the consumer at the centre of the equation and we want to optimise round them.

We do have an ad business; it's a successful business and we'll continue to develop it. But that said, we also have an obligation to customers and it's that which is important.

One of things we've done a great job on is to really highlight and make transparent the conversation that people are having. We don't take a view that a person knowing who you are is either good or bad, that's down to the person themselves to decide. What we want to do is make it obvious who they are engaged with – who's privy to this conversation they are having.

You should be empowered to make a decision on whether that conversation gets shared or not. If that sharing adds value to you and you want to [do it], then that's great. If you don't want it shared because, for instance, you are going to a medical site and you want to keep that private, then you should be empowered to make that decision.

The infamous porn mode

InPrivate browsing - or porn mode?TR: You've touched on the inPrivate browsing – what is the proviso behind giving people the option to keep their browsing secret?

JC: I can tell you about buying a gift for your wife, or planning surprise parties. There are a number of scenarios that you can think through, and I've discussed all the ones I'm going to discuss! I've seen the nicknames that it's received over time. From our perspective the approach is; let's put the user at the centre and make sure the experience builds from there.

TR: There's been a lot of talk about HTML 5 in browsers, bits of it are implemented in IE8 and other bits are not – can you talk us through the thinking behind that?

JC: So let me back up and talk about standards as a whole. One of the things that we look at is who do you have to delight – and so one of the groups is obviously the developers, and fundamentally we want to make sure that we were creating a browser that is easy for people to develop against, whether that's building in standard dev tools for the product or embracing broader web standards, although that's obviously a moving target.

Being a moving target we're very engaged in trying to define standard that make sense. So that's a key part of what we've done in IE8. That said, the other piece to this - and this is an obligation that Microsoft takes very seriously - is the need to support not just current users but also users of all the different legacy versions.

This is critically important, we have people using IE4 and 5, IE6, IE7 and obviously IE8 and so it's important from our perspective and our customers' perspective, whether they are individual consumers or enterprise [businesses], that we will provide the bridge so that people can get what they want.

A trade off

IE8 - in actionTR: Do you feel that providing for legacy users forces Microsoft to make a trade-off?

JC: There are trade-offs, there's no doubt about this and its similar on the Windows side. I still have people using Windows 90-something. The reality is that there are good reasons and less good reasons to stay with legacy technology, but being Microsoft and being an industry leader that becomes a serious commitment.

The companies that are not prepared to make that commitment would struggle to get to the industry leader position.

To create stranded customers would be a terrible decision. There are businesses that are still using IE6 and have developed unique applications for it. They've made significant investments in that platform so we need to create a bridge so that they can still benefit from that investment they've made as well as a bridge to the future.

So that's a key differentiator for us.

And it's not just about functionality but also on security, on bringing updates and patches to continue to maintain those older versions so that people who are using them can still do so securely.

TR: At what point do you hit the kill switch for older versions? Would it be sensible to have a clear date that support will end, so that people developing for specific browsers know when they will no longer be suitable?

JC: If you were to use the Windows XP example, we developed that in 2001 and go into extended support in April of this year and there's another five years to go after that.

I do think we do work closely with businesses to get them to update and do work hard to move people to the latest versions. We have great support technology; things like Windows Update, so people are being brought the latest in a very systematic process so that people can have confidence.

Can IE ever be cutting edge?

IE7 -  dangerous legacy?TR: Is there a danger that by supporting older versions you are in effect not able to provide a cutting edge product?

JC: I don't think that's the conclusion we would draw. We have a more significant investment that we need to make [than our rivals] because our charter is not to just embrace the handful of people who want the latest.

We want to embrace the whole range of internet users, but we also drive out significant innovation and we do consistently deliver the best of both worlds.

We provide a fantastic set of experiences for anyone using any one of our versions of IE as well as folks who are looking for the latest and greatest. They can come to Microsoft for innovation. Things like accelerators, like WebSlices, like click-jacking, no else has cross-site scripting; I can go through others – the smart taskbar, the highlight of the domain name, the grouping of tabs…

TR: IE8 will apparently come with a switch that turns IE off as the default browser. Is that something that worries you?

JC: I guess the simple answer is that fundamentally Windows 7 is still in development…there are certain topics of conversation to be had in terms of how it manifests itself and we are working through all of that and will have more as we get closer to the launch.

TR: Okay, so speaking hypothetically, if a future version of Windows did not have IE as the default browser, do you believe that puts more pressure on you to provide a product that people will choose over other browsers?

JC: What I would say on the question of choice is that choice exists right now. Fundamentally we see market share movement in the UK market share of plus or minus a per cent a month and so it's a highly dynamic movement. The ability for choice is there today.

TR: I would say about that moment that people move away from IE they don't opt to go back – people choose to move away from a default as a rule…

JC: We have people using everything from IE5 to IE8 right now, so fundamentally we have people choosing to go from IE6 to IE7 and so on, so people are making the decision to go to IE - that's a conscious download for those people.

In the UK we have 80 per cent of browser share, so if you ask are more people moving away or moving to [IE] then someone looking at that share would draw a logical conclusion that the movement goes more in one direction than the other..

TC: But it's going down – it's 80 per cent and declining…

JC: It's going up and down in the last two months, we've seen both…

TR: But you're down year on year.

JC: Year on year we're down slightly and I do think that that's a sign of a competitive market.

IE7 is getting on in age. For a lot of people back on IE6 or IE5 then [those products] are certainly getting on and you've got a lot of competitive offerings out there.

We are developing and we think IE8 is a product that people will choose to go to and our job is to get people on to it because we think that when people get on to it they are going to love this product and so fundamentally that's our approach.

The end of default

IE8 - now out of betaTR: But default has been a key thing in terms of people choosing IE – does it worry you to have that crutch taken away?

JC: I think we are well aligned with IE8 if you look at it around the world, browser usage varies greatly and in the UK more people have chosen to be on IE8…

TR: Or not chosen…

JC: They have chosen. They've chosen to stay or continue using it and upgrade within the IE line. They've made a choice along the line, but what we're seeing in IE8 is a big step forward in terms of the overall browser. Fundamentally, we're really excited about the head to head comparisons and I think it shows in things like publishing the whitepaper [comparing IE with other browsers]. We'll take on anyone.

We all want to win [the browser wars].

TR: There's been a lot of talk about speed – how important is dependability?

JC: If it becomes about benchmarks it's also got be about dependability. Tab isolation makes a big difference for people. I don't know about you, but I always have a lot of pages up for a lot of different reasons, so if one goes wrong I don't want that to affect everything.

IE8 will restore the entire browser session or your homepage – again giving the customer the choice.

Putting the user at the centre

IE8 - the toolbarTR: You talk about putting the user at the centre of things…

JC: It's a key priority for the company. I mean fundamentally it is a core platform for people's experiences for when they are using a PC. We want to make sure that Windows users have the best possible platforms available and they can do what they want to do.

Whether its Windows and Windows 7 or IE and IE8, it's all about putting our users right at the centre of what we are trying to do; [we want to ]understand what they are trying to accomplish, and for the overwhelming majority of people technology for technology's sake is not what they want.

We want to make sure it's fun, fast, safe, secure and reliable and those are the key features in that combination. It's coming together and that's really what I think we've done a great job of. We've taken the practical, almost pragmatic view, of asking 'what are you trying to accomplish?' Well let's make sure that we enable you to do that exceptionally well. You are going to have a great experience doing what you wanted to do.

The other thing is really reaching out to the ecosystem to our various partners to make [the new features] part of the experience and we've done a great job in reaching out for accelerators, for WebSlices and making that, one, easily discoverable, two, easy to develop for and three, a rich and intuitive part of the browsing experience.

TR: Obviously getting third-party support for those areas is a key part to their success.

JC: There's lots of talk about add-ons - who's got the most and so on – and I think we've done two things very right in that area. First and foremost we've looked at what people want and optimised that 'in the box'.

Fundamentally when you first launch the browser it does the things you want it to do. From day one - of all the browsers out there - IE8 is the most complete in accomplishing the thing you want to do.

That's very important. I read [something] the other day from Mozilla on the percentage of people who are using their add-ons and it's a small percentage.

So it's an interesting question; it's the core functionality that is going to define the average person's experience That's been an important piece of how we've looked at it.

TR: What's the one message that you would like to give people about IE8 – to pull people back from using Firefox and to make sure that people don't move away from IE?

JC: The key message is that it's the real world browser for how you really operate. It's optimised for your experiences and fundamentally IE8 is something faster, easier and more secure. It's just going to work. It just works – we've used that a few times in other campaigns but that really is what this is about. It's the best browser for how people really use the internet.

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