Rumors of IE's Demise Are Exaggerated, Researcher Says

Editor's Note, February 21, 2010: This article was reprinted from PC World's sibling publication Computerworld, which has issued the following statement: The person quoted in this story as "Craig Barth" is actually Randall C. Kennedy, a contributor to InfoWorld (another PC World sibling). Kennedy, who presented himself as the CTO of Devil Mountain Software, no longer works at InfoWorld. Given that he disguised his identity to Computerworld and a number of other publications, the credibility of Kennedy's statements is called into question. Rather than simply remove stories in which he is quoted, we have left them online so readers can weigh his data and conclusions for themselves.

Talk of Internet Explorer's demise is "far fetched," a researcher said Monday, citing data showing that more than 80% of enterprise PCs run Microsoft's browser during the workday.

According to Devil Mountain Software, slightly more than 80% of the 22,0000 PCs in the company's community-based Exo.performance.network (Xpnet) run Internet Explorer (IE), typically for much of the day.

Devil Mountain's network collects "real-time system metrics and application usage data from Windows-based PCs and servers around the globe," according to the company's Web site. That information is then used to offer up what the company calls "an authoritative" look at market share trends affecting the Windows OS.

IE isn't alone on the computers Devil Mountain monitors. A large chunk of business users run multiple browsers, said Craig Barth, the CTO at Devil Mountain. Almost 50% of the monitored PCs run Firefox, while approximately 20% run Google Chrome. "There's a lot of overlap," Barth said.

Devil Mountain's performance measurement software, which has been installed on the 22,000 PCs -- most of which are enterprise systems -- tracks application use by monitoring processes in Windows' Tasklist. That approach, argued Barth, shows that IE is in no danger of vanishing from the landscape, at least the corporate landscape.

"The idea that IE will go away is far fetched," Barth said. "People who say those kinds of things simply don't have a grasp on the internal organization of enterprises, or the bureaucracy of companies. Until enterprises flush out the internal applications that rely on IE, that use unsupported and undocumented layout commands, IE isn't going anywhere. And those dinosaur applications are almost impossible to get rid of."

Other means of browser measurement have tracked a steady decline in IE use from its usage share high of 95% in mid-2004. The most recent data from California-based Web metrics firm Net Applications, for instance, pegged IE's share of browser usage falling about 4.5 points in the last 18 weeks of 2009 to reach a new low of 63%.

Devil Mountain's XPnet data, on the other hand, shows IE use fluctuating during the same period, with the browser's process appearing on between 80% and 88% of PCs' Tasklists.

Barth acknowledged that XPnet's methodology counts instances of the IE process that may not be directly related to browsing, which may inflate its numbers somewhat. "The IE engine is often embedded in other applications, and sometimes is used for custom application front ends, like online help systems," Barth said. "The fact is that [IE's] tentacles permeate so many layers of Windows. So when Microsoft says it's painful to remove it, they're not kidding."

Microsoft has used that argument several times over the years when it's faced antitrust scrutiny. During the 1998 antitrust trial in the case brought by the U.S. Department of Justice and several states, Microsoft claimed that removing IE from Windows would cripple the operating system and make it unstable. Last year, however, Microsoft surrendered to pressure from European Union regulators, and agreed to give Windows users a way to remove the browsing components of IE if they wanted to run a rival -- but only after threatening to release Windows 7 minus a browser of any kind.

The fact that IE pervades the enterprise -- in large part because of the need to support legacy Web applications or sites -- isn't all good news for Microsoft, Barth said. "They can move people forward, from IE6 to IE7 and IE8, but they can't scrap, say, the rendering engine and start all over," he said. "Microsoft may want something like Chrome -- mean, lean and fast -- but they may never get it."

That's one reason why many corporate users run multiple browsers. "There's really a dual personality there," said Barth. "They may have IE running for hours because they've logged into a company application or site, but they're often running Firefox, or increasingly, Chrome at the same time."

In calling the three-way race between Microsoft's IE, Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome, Barth also put down a contrarian bet. While most have tagged IE as the browser in a downward spiral, Barth thinks Firefox is the one in danger.

"The most vulnerable player is not Microsoft," Barth said, again citing IE's lock on the enterprise. "It's Firefox, as Chrome comes up from below. Chrome is cleaner looking, faster and has better security. Microsoft, because of its sheer weight and the legacy requirement, isn't going anywhere."

That leaves Firefox the odd browser out. "If anyone is going to get their lunch eaten, it's Firefox," Barth said. "It isn't the part of the big picture for anybody."

Users who want to contribute to Xpnet's data collective can do so by downloading and installing a small utility, DMS Clarity Tracker Agent, from Devil Mountain's site.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld . Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , send e-mail to gkeizer@ix.netcom.com or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed .

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