Is MS new browser Spartan a good idea? – Part 2 A new browser from a new MS

Posted by on Jan 18, 2015 in words | 0 comments

So in case you haven’t gathered from Part 1, I don’t as a rule use IE – only on my 8” win8.1 tablet.

I moved way from IE to Firefox years and years ago and that was simply because of the support for extension to let me do clever things – such as tab manipulation, mouse gestures for browsing, support for auto-highlighting search terms on my pages.

Firefox let me do these things – to me it was a power user browser. Since I started using Firefox Chrome came on the scene but I never really embraced it, the main customisation I use in Firefox was about how it handled search & Chrome being a Google product did search the Google approved way.

Having been a Windows Phone user from launch I was happy enough with Mobile IE and have been pleased with the improvements bought to the experience coming in with WP8. Using it on mobile and my Win8.1 tablet is actually not bad but it wasn’t enough to persuade me to go back to IE on the desktop and the lack of any extension support for these platforms is still a thorn in my side. Particularly lack of support for things like LastPass – logging into all those sites manually is a total PITA.

In the meantime my personal IT habits shifted to embrace the emergence of “cloudization” and I started benefiting from having my files and setting sync between PC’s without me having to remember to do anything I was coming a cropper. I was living in two different digital worlds from a browsing point of view. On my desktops I would be using Firefox with its “Sync” platform to keep my Surface and Desktop extensions the same. I had IE Mobile and IE Metro in use on my phone and companion device which could share open tabs and browsing history and then just to top it all off I had LastPass with its own application level data sync for my website passwords.
So where does this leave us with the rumours of a new Microsoft made browser? Well the Microsoft of now is singing to a different tune than the one that first created IE. The Microsoft of now is fully behind “experiences”, understands the mobile world and is getting the hang of rapid/agile development process.

If this Microsoft can deliver me a new browser that:

  • Supports touch as well / if not better than Modern IE 10
  • Is fast and nimble
  • Has an extension platform that will engage and encourage developers to produce useful add-ons
  • Syncs my extensions and browser configuration across devices
  • Syncs my current browsing sessions across devices
  • Gives ME a Firefox equivalent experience on my desktop
  • Is as standards compliant as Firefox or recent IE browsers
    • Don’t laugh, IE 9-11 is much better behaved than it used to be

and most importantly of all:

  • Provides the same experience across all of my devices
    • I assume this would be powered by OneDrive in the same way Win8 Sync is

Then count me in and sign me up!

By devices here I’m talking about the following platforms: Windows, Xbox, Phone – The trinity of sreens

But lets not forget that this “new” MS I don’t see why this list shouldn’t also include: OSX and Android in the same way that Office or Skype does. (I’m leaving iOS out due to the platform restrictions around the use of browsers here)

Now doesn’t that sound like a browser you would want to use?

A way forward?

The tricky bit is how MS bring this to market – an area where they have typically struggled. MS are not good at explaining their strategies or stories to end-users leading to confusion and ultimately frustration. There is also another huge fly in the ointment with Microsoft’s traditional customers – business.


With my IT Pro hat on I can see that MS has some big issues to overcome in the enterprise with this new approach but if the rumours are true then they seem to be taking a sensible. The rumours to-date suggest that IE will contain two “dll” based engines. One the legacy engine that IE uses right now, and the other the newer Spartan engine. When compatibility mode is called the Trident engine is given the task, otherwise Spartan takes over. This still leaves the UI issues up in the air – large companies get very twitchy when UI is changed as it suddenly requires re-training of users and means heaps of training documentation is now invalid.

Will this cause a headache for IT departments in the short/medium term – probably but it’s likely going to be no worse than the migration planning that went into scouring the enterprise of all Windows XP remnants (oh wait).

Will MS get Spartan right first time out the gate? – History tells us no

Will MS disappoint me by not delivering the browsing experience that I’ve got in my imagination? – Probably 🙁 but hey, I have very high expectations

Will MS figure it out in Spartan V2? – More likely!

Will I use Spartan?– stands a chance!

Am I excited by internet browsers? – Unfortunately but hey that’s what being an IT Pro is about right?!

This news about Spartan, is to me me, ultimately another extension of the new MS “Write once run everywhere” philosophy and as an end-user that’s something I’m very keen to embrace.

Would love to know your thoughts, either below or catch me on twitter if anyone got this far 🙂

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Is MS new browser Spartan a good idea? – Part 1 IE History

Posted by on Jan 14, 2015 in words | 0 comments

Recently on a Yammer board that @jonoble and I are members of, the question was posed about what people made of the news that Microsoft is rumoured to be developing their first new browser in, well, nearly forever.

The question was about whether people thought this was a good idea or not for Microsoft? I ended up producing a long winded reply and thought that I might as well formalise my thoughts a bit further and post it here for posterity’s sake (not because I’m under the delusion that anyone will find it interesting beyond me in 5 years’ time!).

So in a nutshell is Microsoft‘s new browser a good idea? Yes, yes it is. IE was forged back in the early days of the internet, by a Microsoft that was stuck in its ways and had a very desktop-centric view of the world. The world, and Microsoft, have now moved on and it is about time IE did the same.

IE a (s)potted history:

The early days

Internet Explorer was Microsoft answer when it became apparent that this “internet thing” was going to really catch on. I always think of IE as being included with Windows but actually IE 1.0 only shipped with Windows 95 Plus! Expansion pack.

Back in these early days between versions 1-4 IE was actually pretty innovative in its own way. Microsoft added support for things like CSS and VRML, it has a plugin model (Active-X) that would allow third party companies to extend its capabilities i.e with flash and there were some nifty side effects from its OS level integration – Active Desktop anyone?


I can very clearly remember talking about the release of IE4 (September 1997) at school when I was doing a GCSE in IT, does anyone else remember the wee Java 3D clock that they had produced as a demo that you could place on your desktop and move around independently like it was its own program! That months PC-Pro couldn’t come soon enough so that I could get my mitts on the install media to upgrade my poor old TechnICL Pentium 133 workhorse!

Sadly, as with most things in IT I was starting to learn that reality could be a cruel disappointment. There is always a gap between how I perceive a feature should work vs how it has been actually been programmed. Active Desktop didn’t evolve into anything useful and was too much of a resource hog back when RAM & CPU were precious precious commodities. It was also horribly unreliable, replacing your wallpaper all too often with that white browser page containing a link down in the bottom right hand corner that would attempt to refresh the desktop page… Anyway enough memory lane.


So what went wrong for MS and IE? Well these early IE versions were certainly not without their flaws. It was far from easy on system resources, it wasn’t designed with security in mind and as Microsoft had tried to push the capabilities of the browser it had implemented a whole stack of their own non-standards compliant HTML markup.

With the launch of IE6 and Windows XP back in 2001 Microsoft held a huge monopoly over the browser market through its decisions to bundle IE with its own OS. A decision which had huge repercussions for Microsoft and something that would land it in hot water both in the USA and with the EU. This huge market share was bad for consumers in two ways. Firstly it presented a huge surface area for nasty people to target and secondly it seemed that Microsoft almost “gave up” at this point on any innovation in IE. On the security front IE was being targeted on two sides at once, by websites themselves with malicious code that could install and launch Active-X components in your browser and by other crap-ware on your computer that would load IE full of toolbars to the point where you had no browsing space actually left!

Image of IE with loads of toolbars & no browser space

IE7 with loads of toolbars

As for innovation it would now be five years between releases, with IE 7 appearing in late 2006. Just think about that for a moment. Five years with no major versions or updates to a bit of software. That is something pretty much unheard of now for popular software.

At about the time of IE7 Microsoft were starting to be left behind by Firefox and Opera. Any power user worth their salt had moved on to platforms that supported tabbed browsing and a truly flexible extension model allowing deep customisation of the platform, not just plugins or toolbars. These browsers were also generally much faster although not necessarily less resource intensive (Firefox 3.5 I’m looking at you).


With IE 8 Microsoft made a big effort to comply with web standards but unfortunately the damage was done. While browsers like Firefox and Opera behaved in a mostly predictable way when rendering complex sites, IE was all over the place. IE 9 continued this trend of improvement but they were to some extent having to lie in the bed that they had made for themselves. While they fought to modernise and transform the browser into something that was much more standards compliant they were left having to support a huge tangle of legacy rubbish required by organisations who had deployed Line Of Business software reliant on a browser or the desktop (again IE hooks in deep).

Out in the wider world PDA’s were morphing into smartphones and Microsoft had created a lite version of IE for their pocket platforms which did an okay job but again was left for dead by the completion from the likes of Opera mobile.

With Windows 8 Microsoft had a new challenge on their hands. They had effectively split their operating system in half with the traditional desktop environment and the “Modern” full screen touch friendly portion designed for a new class of device. IE 10 therefore had two modes to it, one which ran on the desktop like previous versions and the other that was a full screen touch-optomised experience.

As someone who in the last year had moved from using a Nexus 7 Android based companion device to having a Windows 8.1 8” tablet I had also started to re-visit Metro IE having given up on Firefox when they canned their pre-beta Metro version. Do you know what? IE 10 Modern is actually a pretty good browser. It has the best touch support, with things like gestures for navigation that I’ve come across but it still has its flaws.

This is why the idea of Microsoft starting a clean browser slate seems to be an awesome concept… to be continued in Part 2!

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An unsupported app may be worse than no app at all

Posted by on Jan 11, 2015 in words | 0 comments

One of the main complaints of platforms that aren’t iOS or Android is the lack of apps. At least that’s the lazy “con” to put in your review of an operating system or device. In fairness, most platforms have most of the things that most people want. However, even if lots of your family and friends might be “most people”, there’s a good chance that you aren’t, and there’s a particular service that you use, and you can’t don’t want to live without the app that supports it.

Unfortunately, the arrival of your must-have app on a platform isn’t the end of the story. There are far too many cases of companies who offer nothing more than lip-service to a given platform. The good news for users of iOS and Android is that you’re less likely to fall foul of this, although there are some apps that are only/better supported on one or the other of those platforms, for whatever reason. For people who are thinking about changing platforms, it’s no use just checking if there’s versions of the apps really want on that platform; you also need to know if they’re any good and ideally if they’re being supported beyond an initial release window.

This brings me on to the sad case of Audible for Windows Phone.

As the number one supplier of audiobooks, Audible’s content is great. Sadly, their app for Windows Phone lets them down badly. My memory isn’t the best, but I think I can just about recall a wonderful period of time when it used to work fine. I use my phone to play audiobooks, podcasts or music on my daily commute, but at some point something changed and using the Audible app has been like torture ever since. It’s been terrible on two most recent Windows Phones (the HTC 8X and the Lumia 930). It may not have been Audible’s fault that it broke (there’s every chance that Microsoft pushed an OS update that changed something, but I do blame them for a lack of pro-active support of their app – plenty of people have reported it broken and they haven’t done anything about it since their last update on 26th November 2013.

For me the problem is starting playback. When it actually starts it’s fine, unless I have to pause for more than a few seconds, then the problems start again. Usually, when I launch the app to play a book, it takes several minutes to start playback. I have sometimes pressed play, taken a shower and got dried and half dressed before it starts to play. Sometimes I’ll see the screen turn off after 5 minutes without it starting – when that happens I’ll force-close the app and launch it again. Sometimes that helps, sometimes I get a short sound like the narrator is clearing their throat, then nothing. It’s abysmal.

My partner in crime at TheTekTonic pinged Audible about this on Twitter and they claim that they’re going to have an update for the app soon. I understand from checking up on this from time to time, that they haven’t had any expertise in-house to update the app, so I presume they have either recruited someone or paid a 3rd party.

I’m hoping that their update will make the app usable again, but here’s their problem – if it doesn’t, I’m out of patience. They’re going to lose me as a customer. If they didn’t have an app on Windows Phone and I choose that platform, that’s on me. As it stands, I expect to be able to use their service on my platform because they provided an app for that, but the app doesn’t work properly, so that’s on them. So this isn’t about my poor choice; it’s about a company that doesn’t appear to value my custom. It’s eroded my faith in them as a service provider that I have been giving money to on a monthly basis for years. If their new app is great, I’ll be well on the way to forgiving them (because I know that making software work on such a wise variety of devices is not trivial), but if not…

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