This year Internet Explorer 6 celebrates its 10th year in existence. Coming bundled with Windows XP during its 2001 launch, Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) became the default web browser for any new computer sold from manufacturers such as Dell or Gateway and for anyone upgrading from Microsoft’s previous versions of Windows for the next five years until Microsoft released Internet Explorer 7. During this five-year span, Windows XP came to power more than half of the computers in existence – peaking at 70% of all computers worldwide in 2007.
While XP was dominating both the consumer and enterprise markets, the web was growing exponentially. New browsers were being delivered that were open-source (developed by teams of people donating their time), free, and years ahead of the browser technology Microsoft was bundling with their operating system at the time. Implementing fresh ideas about the role of the internet, these open-source browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Opera, etc) supported technologies such as CSS3 and HTML5, they were lightweight, updated frequently and more secure.
These advances in browser technology mean that web developers can rapidly deploy web-based applications that rival their native software equivalent in terms of accessibility and features. While a software development team delivering a native solution must maintain and support multiple versions and platforms (i.e., OSX, Windows XP, Windows 7, etc), a team developing a web based application must only maintain one version of their application. For you, the end-user, that means more frequent updates and enhancements, a consistent experience across all platforms, cheaper licensing and access to the app from anywhere in the world with an internet connection.
This has caused a shift in the web recently, loosely referred to as “software as a service.” This push is encouraging users to abandon native applications and move parts of their digital lifestyle and workflow to reside entirely in the “cloud.” Google Apps, for example, can provide a business with an alternative to Microsoft’s Office suite. With Google Apps users can create spreadsheets and documents, manage their contacts and calendars, and send and receive email from any location, any computer or smartphone and from the same interface. While Google and third-party developers are rapidly rolling out new features for Google Apps it still isn’t a direct replacement for Office, but it does provide an alternative for smaller companies that need easy document sharing capabilities, don’t have the resources to administer a complicated internal network or are looking to offset enterprise licensing fees. All of this wasn’t possible just a few years ago and with the web continually maturing we’ll see the line of native and web app blurring more and more.
Until the recent release of Internet Explorer 9, Microsoft did not officially or fully support any of these technologies, making these advances inaccessible or incomplete to individuals or businesses still running older versions of Internet Explorer. Many small to medium-sized businesses could see benefits from upgrading to and maintaining recent browsers on their systems, but a large number of businesses are still adhering to an antiquated version of IE for one reason or another. Some software requires older versions of IE to be installed and others have set up their systems to block users from installing third-party software (such as Chrome or Firefox), and, since Microsoft has no plans to release IE9 for Windows XP, the security, speed and innovation of the web to come will not be available to these users.
With Windows XP support now limited and scheduled to be completely shelved by 2014, it may be time to reconsider (or consider) your upgrade path while keeping in mind the increasing movement toward web-based solutions. With tablets and mobile devices gaining popularity and Google soon to release its Chromebook to the public, its safe to say that both the web and computer hardware will become a very different place within the next decade.