A fairy godmother that is looking out for it, in spite of anything done by Mr. Ballmer.

Proving that where there is a will, there is a way, a new startup of Microsoft alumni is coding a little jewel that will do exactly what Microsoft needs to keep selling copies of Windows 7 without problems to the corporate hoards.

Called Unibrows, a name not really destined to become a catchy phrase, but instead a description, it allows the use of Internet Exploder 6 inside Internet Exploder 8, allowing the users to run their old custom applications without trouble, and saving the bacon of Microsoft and Mr. Ballmer in a big way.


A startup led by people who worked with and at Microsoft on Internet Explorer will soon release an add-on that lets customers run the aged IE6 within the newer IE8 browser.

The Unibrows add-on is aimed at companies that want to move off IE6 — and the almost-as-old Windows XP — to 2009’s IE8 and a more modern operating system, such as Windows 7, said Matt Heller, the CEO of Washington-based Browsium.

“Companies need something simple that isn’t virtualization based,” said Heller. “Unibrows renders IE6 inside an IE8 tab without companies’ having to change a single line of code in the sites or Web applications.”

The only question now is why Mr. Ballmer did not dispatch a team of programmers at Microsoft to do this, long ago, before it became a point of sticking for many businesses. It did not take Nostradamus to see that this would be a problem, with the economy bad for at least 3 years, and the reticence that was shown in changing to Vista for the same reason.

When people talk about Microsoft being a company looking like its on its last legs, they cite stupid things like not entering the phone market on time. That’s just absurd – the problem is shown with clarity here. If Ballmer had done this three years ago, the upgrade wave to Windows 7 would have looked like a tsunami today.

Loss of vision is the problem – and not some enigmatic vision which will bring something never known before. No, the loss of vision is the type that tells you when the wheels are wobbling, and ready to come off the wagon, you do something before the wheel falls off entirely and causes the wagon to lose everything packed in it.

Even as Microsoft tries to put a stake in the heart of IE6, enterprises find it difficult, expensive and time consuming to dump the old program because IE8 often won’t render sites designed specifically for the once-popular IE6, or won’t work with IE6-era applications.

According to Gartner Research, IE6 compatibility problems will cause 1-in-5 organizations to take longer than expected or spend more than they budgeted for their Windows 7 migration projects. The problem: Approximately 40% of the Web applications used by companies still running IE6 won’t work on IE8, the browser bundled with Windows 7.

Although one of Microsoft‘s recommended workarounds for enterprises that need to keep running IE6 is to use MED-V, the company’s desktop virtualization system, Unibrows does not insert a virtualized version of the old browser into IE8. Instead, Browsium has licensed several DLLs, or dynamic-link libraries from Microsoft, to make the add-on render a site or application just as does a stand-alone version of IE6.

At this point, I’m sure I can hear the minds of some thinking that Ballmer does not look so bad now, as he certainly must have known what those licensed DLLs were to be used for. That may absolve his stupidity in the short term, but it doesn’t excuse, or explain why he did not do something like this, long before last July.

“We run as a local process on the machine,” said Matt Crowley, the chief technology officer of Browsium. “[Unibrows] is a child process of IE8 and is triggered based on the rules [administrators have set].” At that point, Unibrows swaps in the IE6 DLLs to render the page or app within the tab.

Crowley was formerly a program manager on Microsoft’s IE team, while Heller worked as a consultant for Microsoft on IE issues for more than six years.

The IE6-inside-IE8 add-on supports all the functionality of the real thing, including ActiveX controls designed for IE6, and the old browser’s JavaScript rendering.

Company IT administrators can set access to IE6-specific sites and applications via group policies within IE8, giving them complete control over when IE8 mutates into IE6. The add-on works on any version of Windows that supports IE8, including XP, Vista and Windows 7.

Unibrows targets organizations that want to move beyond Windows XP without having to redesign internal sites and revamp Web apps to make them compatible with IE8, said Heller. Some firms that have been beta testing the add-on plan to use it as a temporary stop-gap, while others hope to use it for several years.

One large manufacturing company in the U.K. that’s testing Unibrows wants the add-on so it can migrate to Windows 7 now but hold off remaking its mission-critical CRM (customer relationship management) Web application until 2013, said Heller.

“We do see an obsolescence curve for Unibrows,” Heller admitted, “but it will be years before organizations won’t need IE6.”

Microsoft will retire IE6 and its companion OS, Windows XP, from all support in April 2014, when it issues the final security updates for the software.

“But there are always going to be browser compatibility issues,” said Crowley, adding that the technology behind Unibrows can be used to create similar add-ons for other browsers to provide backward compatibility with sites and online applications.

According to the latest statistics from site analytics vendor Net Applications, IE6 accounted for 15% of all browsers used last month worldwide. At its pace of decline over the past year, IE6 won’t drop under the 10% mark until May 2011, and will still retain a share of more than 5% — as much as Apple‘s Safari currently controls — by this time next year.

Browsium has been beta testing Unibrows since July, and will ship a final version later this month, said Heller. “We’re very close to release,” he said.

Unibrows will be sold on a per-seat basis for $5 per user per year, said Heller.

More information about the add-on can be found on Browsium’s Web site.

Ballmer should be on his knees, thanking the gods of computing that, once again, he is not seeing the company go down because of his lack of prescience, and his buffoonery.


Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open.


Opera, the fastest and most secure web browser

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