Google has put Windows XP users in a tight spot by dropping support for Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), analysts said today.
The search giant's decision also smacks of competitive pushiness, one expect added, and will be seen by some Windows users as a bald attempt to get them to switch browsers to Google's own Chrome.
Last week, Google announced it will drop support for IE8 for its online apps and services on Nov. 15. The move was dictated by a policy that the company adopted last year, which mandates that it support only the current edition of a browser and its immediate precursor.
After Microsoft releases IE10 in late October, IE8 heads to the chopping block.
"It's hard to dismiss the thought that this is intended to hit Microsoft where it hurts by exploiting its decision not to support XP with its new browsers," said Al Hilwa, an analyst at IDC.
Hilwa was referring to Microsoft's oft-criticized decision to not support Windows XP with IE9, the browser that launched in March 2009. IE10, meanwhile, will not run on XP or Vista, making it Windows 7- and Windows 8-only.
"In the past, Google has seen that as an opportunity to exploit Microsoft's position on IE support for XP," Hilwa continued. "Now, it apparently sees an even bigger opportunity to switch users to its browser."
Microsoft's decision to not let Windows XP run IE9 put users in an awkward spot: They were looking at an IE dead end, with IE8, the one Google will dump this fall, XP's final version.
Microsoft has been hammered since the March 2009 debut of IE9 for not offering the browser to XP users.
Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, saw Google's desire to push Chrome playing a part in the IE8 ditching.
"They're offering a browser that's more up-to-date, that integrates better with their own services," said Miller of Google's recommendation that IE8 users switch to another browser, with Chrome among the obvious options. "Microsoft may lose these people [IE8 users] to Chrome, at least for a while," Miller added.
Unlike Google's retirement of IE7 last year, the dropping of IE8 has major implications because of that browser's continued strength and its association with Windows XP, which also remains a major player.
IE8 was the most widely-used browser edition in the world last month, with a usage share of 25%, according to Net Applications. Of those who ran IE, nearly half, or 47%, ran IE8.
Windows XP is in an even stronger spot, with a usage share of 42.5%, second-most in the world and just behind the 42.8% share of the three-year-old Windows 7.
By retiring IE8, Google will affect XP users who cannot switch browsers, especially those in businesses and other organizations locked into a Microsoft-made browser by IT policy.
And that's the crux, said Miller. "This is just the foretelling of a larger elephant in the room," said Miller. "The reality of it is that XP is not disappearing."
Microsoft has set XP's end of support for April 2014; after that date, it will not provide security updates for the OS.
Users now running XP would not be affected by Google's retirement of IE8 if they upgraded their PCs, or upgraded the operating system to, say, Windows 7, as many already have. But the migration from XP is slow going, something that must stick in Microsoft's craw.
"Corporations and consumers aren't getting the message about XP's end of life," said Miller. "They're not getting the message that [after April 2014] there will be no means to service the OS."
But to Hilwa, Google's IE8 retirement won't be that big of a deal for XP users. "Most enterprises tend to use Microsoft's browser [but] most are not significant users of Google's apps, and this will certainly help color their view of Google as an enterprise player," Hilwa said.
Hilwa also saw little chance that Google's Chrome would pick up users from the end of IE8 support. "It does not mean that companies using XP will rush to support Chrome," he argued. "Firefox is a more likely beneficiary because of Google's weak reputation on the privacy of the data that flows through its browser, which is an issue for enterprises."
Google supports the two most-recent versions of Firefox, currently Firefox 14 and Firefox 15. Both run on Windows XP.
Microsoft declined to comment on Google's decision to retire IE8.
Google also declined to comment, other than to repeat what it's said before, that the retirement of IE8 is in line with previously-announced policy and that the goal is to let its developers take advantage of the latest technologies in the newest browsers.
IE8 users can switch to another browser, including the most recent versions of Firefox, Chrome or Opera. Another option is to run Chrome Frame, a plug-in for IE that lets users of the latter utilize Chrome's WebKit rendering engine as a browser-within-a-browser.
Google launched Chrome Frame in 2009, when both Microsoft and Mozilla blasted the plug-in over security and browser fragmentation concerns.
Chrome Frame works with IE6, IE7, IE8 on Windows XP and adds IE9 to the list for Vista and Windows 7. It's available from Google's site as a free download.
The end-of-support plan for Google Apps will not disrupt access to its search site using older browsers, or suddenly cause Google's services to stop working in IE8. Instead, new features may not work in the older browser, and content may not display properly.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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