Add-on lets IE6 apps live forever

Browsium replicates IE6 engine to run apps in IE8/9

Note: this post has been updated.

I’ll bet that many Microsoft customers noted the launch of Internet Explorer 9 yesterday wistfully, wishing they could have joined the party at SXSW but couldn’t because they’re still stuck in IE6. One company is offering to build a bridge for them so they can migrate with their IE6-engineered Web apps to the Windows 7 operating system and at least IE8, and soon IE9.

Browsium today introduced UniBrows, a lightweight browser add-on that replicates the IE6 browser engine in IE8. This will enable enterprises to run legacy Web apps in IE8 without having to go through the costly and time-consuming task of rewriting those apps, which is all that Microsoft can offer as a solution.

“They feel terrible that they’re still having to use IE6 on their desktops but they can’t avoid it,” said Gary Schare, president of Browsium.

Microsoft has not been helpful by telling users to rewrite IE6 apps as it did in this letter to customers: “Update and remediate your applications to IE8 as soon as possible." While this remediation process can take time and effort, it is the preferred and best solution.” One Browsium customer told Schare that rewriting just one IE6-configured app to run in IE8 could cost his company $5 million. In a typical enterprise running thousands of apps, there may be only 10 or 20 that run only in IE6, but 10 or 20 times $5 million is an expense that can be hard to justify. And besides, in some situations, the developer who wrote the original app for IE6 may no longer be with the company

Other Microsoft-suggested remedies create their own problems. The company says customers can virtualize Windows XP, including IE6, to run in Windows 7 with solutions such as MED-V, Terminal Services or Windows XP Mode, but Schare says having to manage two operating systems is problematic. A better solution is to just virtualize the browser, but Microsoft’s license won’t allow that.

Schare demoed UniBrows for me on WebEx and showed what happens when a Web site created for IE6 is run in IE8. Web links run on top of other text, a news ticker in one part of the site stops running, and drop-down menus don’t function. Run UniBrows and everything works fine.

“UniBrows will launch Microsoft’s own code to launch IE6. We’re not doing the rendering, we’re just handing off to the old browser engine,” he said.

I asked Schare if Microsoft endorses Browsium’s solution. He said it hasn’t dissed Browsium, but still sticks to its rewrite your apps line. He suspects that since many enterprise customers have already gone through the time and expense of rewriting apps, “they don’t want to come out now and say there’s an easier way.”

But there is. This problem won’t go away once everyone moves from IE6 to IE8 (by the way, Schare says only a little bit of tinkering will be required for UniBrows to run IE6 apps in the new IE9). This is likely to be a problem every time there is an upgrade to a new browser or new operating system. Instead of trying to ignore Browsium, Microsoft should embrace it.

Update:

Microsoft, through its PR agency, responded Wednesday morning to my questions with a link to a blog post from yesterday titled "The Nine Reasons Why IE9 is the Best Browser for Business Customers." Number eight is the pertinent point here because it addresses browser backwards compatibility. Roger Capriotti, the director of Internet Explorer marketing whom I interviewed at the IE9 RC event in San Francisco, writes that IE is the only browser that supports backwards compatibility "emulating some functionality as early as IE5.5 and IE6." I wonder what he means by "some."

Capriotti continues: "Users can easily render sites in early compatibility modes by selecting compatibility mode from within IE9 and your IT admins can programmatically places sites into compatibility mode through group policy." This issue is already being addressed in the comments to this post with some debate about whether compatibility mode fixes all issues. And commentors to Capriotti's post are complaining that Microsoft has abandoned XP by not supporting IE9 in that OS.

Microsoft's reply did not address Browsium's Schare's comments that Microsoft's position is to just tell business customers to rewrite their apps, which again can be a time-consuming and expensive process.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.