What's striking about the support change is that Microsoft will abandon IE8, the most widely-used edition, in less than a year-and-a-half. According to data from metrics company Net Applications, IE8 was used by 37% of those running one form or another of Internet Explorer, more than the 29% share that the much newer IE11 controlled last month.
And IE8 use has been growing: In the last three months, its rate of growth has been four times that of IE11.
What was Microsoft thinking?
Al Hilwa, an analyst with research firm IDC, focused on the security angle. "We have a situation where the security consequences of using outdated software is like putting enterprises in a slowly-heating pot," Hilwa said in an email. "We are definitely reaching the boiling point in terms of hacker intrusions and exploitation. The problem is changing and software provisioning has to change with it."
But Silver and others saw more at work in Redmond than Capriotti let on.
"Microsoft suggests that users will have a better experience with newer versions of IE, and that's probably true, but this will also reduce Microsoft's support costs," said Silver.
Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft concurred. "This wasn't a complete surprise. In the world of new efficiencies [at Microsoft], it didn't shock me that they did this. They're looking for ways to build better software faster," he said, referring to CEO Satya Nadella's oft-stated goal to change Microsoft's culture, including accelerating software release tempos and making development teams more accountable, productive and economical.
Starting in January 2016, Microsoft will only support the most-current browser for an operating system. For Windows 7, that means several versions of IE will have shortened lifecycles.
And with numerous browsers to support, and then even more permutations with not only the OS — IE8 on Windows Vista and Windows 7; IE9, IE10 and IE11 on Windows 7; and IE10 and IE11 on Windows 8 and 8.1 — but also integral parts of the company's portfolio, including SharePoint, Microsoft clearly spent considerable time testing patches. Reducing those permutations will benefit Microsoft, Miller said, as will shortening the support lifespan of its software.
The impact of the browser support changes on consumers, the experts agreed, will be minor, as they tend to go along with the ride Microsoft runs. In fact, the company has aggressively driven consumers to adopt the newest versions of IE for years. Starting in early 2012, Microsoft began automatically upgrading customers' copies of IE to the latest available for their operating system: Windows XP users still on IE6 or IE7, for example, were upgraded to IE8.
Auto-upgrades have been successful in pushing large numbers of IE users, presumably consumers for the most part, to newer versions. The same month that Microsoft launched IE11 for Windows 7, the new browser's user share as measured by Net Applications jumped nearly 220%, with another 51% increase within three more months. In eight months, IE11's user share went from 3.3% of all browsers to 16.8%, largely on the back of the automatic upgrade for Windows 7 users.
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