It has frequently amazed me that some assumptions are always made about people, as individuals, and groups of people, ostensibly companies, and their habits when running software.

I suppose that certain assumptions must be made, but many made need not be, as there are indicators which are reliable and much more accessible than those needed to make reliable assumptions.

Then there are those in the computer press that have grown accustomed to making claims through the years, so the possibility of moving away from those claims, motivated by facts, are slim.

But there is also the many that fall into a group that I find most annoying – the zealots that are clearly pandering for Microsoft (or any other company – this example is solely Microsoft) under the guise of being fair and balanced (à la Fox News).

Over at ZDNet, Ed Bott has an article that asks if Microsoft is agile enough to turn out a browser that can compete with others right now.

Well, first I must confess that I was ready to rip Bott a new one over the use of agile, because, when I was growing up, the word meant nimble, adept, etc.  There was no connotation of speed in any place I looked at a definition – and believe me, I looked. I spent my early years in many places where books were my refuge. Over the years since I was in grammar school, its meaning has picked up the primary connotation of speed, which is why I would have lit into that description as a poor one (good that I checked!). When I was growing up, and referring to something that needed the general description of nimble speed, the word used was alacrity, from an Oxford Unabridged dictionary. That speaks to both the fluidity of the English language, and the fact that I am no longer a pre-teen. End of English lesson for today.

Nonetheless, Microsoft is a behemoth, and few times, if any, do we see something described that way used with a term meaning nimble speed, for you see that few things come out quickly from Microsoft, yet, the company has the power to do so, simply counting the number of man-years they can throw at any project.

Whenever the conversation turns to browsers lately, the question comes up: Can Microsoft be agile enough? Sure, what they’re showing off in the IE9 platform previews now is interesting, but it’s unfinished. Microsoft is planning to release an IE9 beta on September 15, but how long will it take for that beta to turn into a final product? And how quickly before the competition leapfrogs it?

Those doubts are understandable. Over the years, Microsoft hasn’t exactly developed a reputation for swift, sure software development. But how does their performance compare with rival software developers? I went back and looked at the record, counting the number of days between major releases for IE, Firefox, Google Chrome, and Safari. Here’s what the results look like, in chart form (click to see the full version in its own window):

Please make the jump through the link above to see the chart. Also, you will see that Opera is not there, nor are any other browsers, which may or may not make you wonder about the comparisons. I’m taking on faith that he is showing the current top four in number of users, and not trying to skew anything.

I had to make a couple assumptions for this chart. I assumed that the final release of Internet Explorer would be on March 30, 2011, roughly six months after the beta and around the time of Microsoft’s MIX conference. I think that’s a reasonable period of time for the full beta cycle to complete. (By way of comparison, Microsoft went from beta to RTM of Windows 7 in less time than that.) Performance on the IE9 development effort has been very steady, with new releases every 6-8 weeks. So it can certainly be done. I also gave Mozilla credit for its Beta 2 release of Firefox 4 in July. Even with that largesse, they’ve still taken an unusually long time between major releases.

It’s hard to fully gauge what Microsoft is capable of doing based on past performance. Every single version of Internet Explorer up till now has been tied to a new release of Windows, which explains the enormous gap between IE6 (Windows XP, 2001) and IE7 (Vista, 2006). Clearly, Microsoft realizes that three years might be a reasonable gap between Windows releases, but it’s far too big a gap  between browser updates. So what is the right number? In his keynote address at MIX06, Bill Gates was fairly blunt:

The browser we need to be unbelievably agile with. I don’t know if [the proper release cycle is] nine months or 12 months or what it is, but it’s much more like that than what we’ve done for these last three years.

Based on recent performance, Microsoft is a long ways from being able to deliver a new browser every year. Ironically, Apple is there already, releasing Safari 5 364 days after Safari 4. And Google is working at twice that speed, releasing Chrome 5 almost exactly six months after its predecessor. That’s understandable, given Chrome’s minimal user interface.

There are so many things that struck me about this that I’ll try to get through them all without leaving any aside.

1] I doubt that ability has a thing to do with it. I am certain that Microsoft could churn out a new version of the browser every month if it so desired, based upon two things – it has the man-years necessary; it also can call the result anything it wants, since the naming of software is so nebulous anyway. If no clear goal is set, or projected for what will change the major version number of something, no one outside the development team will know if anything was really done to change the software enough to commit to a major revision. The example here is Chrome. Sure, it is changing quickly, and adding useful things. But what really designates a major revision change? To my way of looking at things, it is purely on the basis of time. In other words, if we change numbers every 6 months, it make the customers think we are really kicking out the jams in the back rooms and making changes that are radical to the browser. Has this been so proven? I don’t think after revision 3 of Chrome it has been.

2] What Apple does is, again, not really relevant. The changes made by them have no real bearing upon what Microsoft does, or does not do. I doubt that a single person in Redmond looks at Safari for anything other than possible inspiration; certainly they don’t look at its development cycle for any measure of their own progress.

3] If it so desired, Microsoft could leave the browser market entirely, and not many would notice. Corporations have settled on Mozilla; those that have not are asking for trouble, and are lazy, or are waiting for the end of the world in 2012. After all, does anyone take seriously the fact that Microsoft has ever been an innovator in browsers? I say this not with animosity, but with the idea that anyone thinking that Microsoft has lent anything good to browsing must be looking at it at the microscopic level.

4] In relation to the Gates’ comments, I still ask what decides a major version name change, other than the whims of those at the top at any browser company – there certainly has not been anything published on it that I am aware of.

5] We have yet to see anything really useful yet as a browser that we might know as Internet Explorer 9. What we have seen is something that cannot do much more than express what Microsoft wants IE9 to do. Better than a verbal explanation, not nearly so good as a working model.

Picking the right release cycle is a tremendous balancing act for Microsoft, one in which they have to accommodate the demands of conservative corporate customers (who want to avoid upgrades except when absolutely required) and big-spending, trend-setting early adopters, who crave change.

Assuming you feel the need to have a Microsoft browser, perhaps there should be two. A corporate browser, designed for business, made to be fully locked down, secure, and designed only to accomplish those things needed for a business; and a browser that anyone else might use anywhere, at any time.

The big question is whether IE9 represents a true break from the past for Microsoft. From a standards point of view, that’s certainly true, and its development effort also suggests a tempo that it hasn’t come close to in the past. Maybe after IE9 is complete, Microsoft will finally be able to pick up the pace, with the engine evolving along with the W3C’s HTML5 specifications. If that’s the case, an annual browser update could be the norm, with Internet Explorer 10 ready in early 2012, in time to be included with Windows 8.

And, not to beat a dead horse, I ask, “What determines a major browser revision change?” As I see it, Internet Exploder 7 actually was a change from 6 that deserved a positive integer incrementation, for it showed that Microsoft realized that IE6 sucked at many things, security being only a small one of them. Internet Exploder 8 did not, possibly really only becoming Internet Exploder 7.5{the smell of fear}.

As for Ed, he is worrying about things I doubt many outside of Redmond do, for the rest of us have long since moved on. Those that have not don’t know or care enough to.

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Personally, I don’t think there’s intelligent life on other planets. Why should other planets be any different from this one?

Bob Monkhouse

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