Microsoft shoots to shorten Internet Explorer's long tail

Wants to 'get users current,' but of the top four browser makers, has the largest percentage on old editions

Microsoft today spelled out priorities for its Internet Explorer (IE) browser, and at the top of the list is "get users current."

But while the company has made some strides in getting that job done, it's also left a greater proportion of its users behind than any other browser maker.

"Everyone wins when more IE users are running the latest version of the browser," said Sam George, an IE program manager, in a Wednesday blog aimed at Web developers. "We will continue to build features -- like Enterprise Mode IE -- and partner with teams internal and external to Microsoft to enable users and businesses to confidently move to the latest version of IE."

Laudable. But how has Microsoft done?

According to data from Web analytics company Net Applications, Internet Explorer 11 (IE11), the newest version -- launched in October 2013 for Windows 8, then released in November to Windows 7 users -- accounted for 29% of all copies of IE used to go online in April.

Spelled out another way, 71% of IE users ran a version other than the newest on their PCs.

Other browser makers -- Apple, Google and Mozilla -- have larger portions of their desktop user base on the latest versions, and corresponding smaller shares running older editions.

Last month, Apple had about 49% of all Safari users on the newest version, Safari 7. Google boasted 48% on its latest, Chrome 34. Mozilla took top honors with 72% on Firefox 28. (Some of the difference between Chrome and Firefox, both of which use automatic updates to keep customers current, can be attributed to timing: Chrome updated to version 34 on April 8, so for a week last month Chrome 33 was the newest; Mozilla pushed users to Firefox 28 on March 18, and didn't update to Firefox 29 until April 29, giving the former the entire month, less two days, to accumulate share in Net Applications' tracking.)

Microsoft, like its rivals, also insists on automatic upgrades to the latest IE. So why does it trail the competition in the keep-current sweepstakes?

Unlike Apple, Google and Mozilla, which make it either impossible or difficult to stymie auto-updates, Microsoft both blocks some versions from installing on some editions of Windows, and lets customers, primarily businesses, delay deployment of the newest by providing upgrade blocking tools.

Windows XP, for example, may be retired, but it still powers an impressive fraction of all Windows installs: By Net Applications' tally, 29% of all Windows desktops ran XP in April. Because IE8 is the newest version of Microsoft's browser that runs on XP, that browser's share has remained remarkably high. In April, 36% of all copies of IE that went online were IE8.

IE9 and IE10, also superseded by IE11, had shares of 15% and 12%, respectively.

Much of the long tail of IE -- more older editions in use than the newest -- is due to its widespread use in business. Enterprises are loath to upgrade browsers. By nature conservative, corporations resist change of any kind, which costs time and money. And in many cases, they simply cannot switch browsers, or not nearly as easily as do consumers, because their internal websites and Web-based apps are tied to specific versions of IE.

As George pointed out, Microsoft has tried other tricks to coax customers into upgrading to the latest version of Internet Explorer. IE11's Enterprise Mode, a new compatibility feature introduced in early April for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, lets companies instruct the browser to mimic IE8 for legacy websites and Web apps.

Even Enterprise Mode, however, hasn't dimmed the appeal of older editions: IE11's share increase for April was the smallest since its 2013 debut.

Bottom line: Microsoft's goal of keeping customers current needs more work before the company can scratch that off its to-do list.

Of the four biggest browsers, Internet Explorer has the smallest portion of its users -- just 29% -- on the latest version. (Net Applications.)

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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