Internet Explorer 8 Really Is Better

Wayne Rash
If you own Microsoft stock, the news is good. Sales of Windows 7 are going well. Sales of new computers are taking off (finally). Internet Explorer 8 is now the most widely used version of the company's browser. So is there a problem in this picture?

Well, yes. And the problem might be you.

What Microsoft isn't saying is how many of its users are running Windows XP, how many are running Vista, and how many are running older versions of IE. This is important for a couple of reasons, most of them related to security.

Microsoft isn't talking about the percentage of IE users with older versions of the browser because they outnumber the number of users with IE 8, something that the recent attacks on Google demonstrated -- they used a weak spot in IE 6, and there are enough users that still have the old browser to cause serious problems. Later versions of IE, such as versions 7 and 8, fixed the problem, but many users and many companies didn't make the upgrade despite the fact that IE 6 was released nearly a decade ago.

The same is true of Windows. Netbooks are still being sold with Windows XP in spite of the fact that the old version is two generations back. Again, there's the security issue-there are fixes made to Windows 7 that you can't get for Windows XP, and there's important enterprise functionality that's available in the new version that's not in XP.

While there are a lot of reasons you might not have upgraded to Windows 7, the failure of users to make the move to IE8 is a mystery. Yes, it's more complex because it has more features, but most of that complexity can be eliminated in an enterprise environment where you can control what's installed and what's not. What's clear is that without making the change you're exposing yourself and your company to malware attacks and compliance violations that could be a bigger problem than the inconvenience of moving to a newer more secure browser.

The problem of moving to the latest version of Windows is a bigger issue. While there's no question that Windows 7 is a better, more stable and more manageable operating system than Windows XP, the fact is that it also requires a more capable hardware platform. Companies with limited capital expense budgets are trying to avoid buying new computers, and upgrading the old ones is frequently not worth the cost. So they put it off another year.

Adding to the problem of upgrading to a new OS is the relatively limited support in Windows 7 for older computers. When I tried to move a pair of relatively new professional workstations to Windows 7, it was a much more difficult process than I'd expected, despite the fact that both machines were already running Windows Vista. It turns out that there are a number of older devices that Windows 7 doesn't support, including some disk controllers and video cards.

While it's easy to suggest that it might be time to get new hardware, the fact is that the capital investment in older computers isn't easy to simply write off. For many companies, machines need to be fully depreciated before they can be replaced, and if upgrading isn't possible, then those companies simply have to wait.

Microsoft could help solve this problem for the enterprise community by helping with the necessary drivers and other support software for older, but not ancient, computers. If the goal is to allow companies to upgrade, then it should at least be possible with great difficulty or major expense.

But ultimately, the responsibility lies with the IT manager. In many cases the only reasonable way to protect against malware and other security issues is by upgrading. Going to IE8, for example, should be automatic. There's no reason for staying with the older versions and a lot of reasons not to. While upgrading Windows is a harder call it should still be on the priority list. Now that the software and tools are here to do the job, it really is time to make the move to something newer. Really.

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