There is a good chance that we will see the first Beta of IE10 next week as Microsoft continues to reveal more information about Windows 8 and its future web app strategy.
The new browser will have to take Microsoft into the HTML5 future of cloud applications and services. IE10 may become to Windows 8 what IE4 was to Windows 95/98.
Keeping an eye on browser market shares could get you concerned about Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The browser has been in a steady decline over several years. You could get the impression that Microsoft is almost oblivious to its market share losses, especially if you read blog posts by Microsoft executives that discuss the market share gains of IE. As strange as it sounds, Microsoft may have good reason to be happy about current browser market share trends. If we criticize Microsoft's inability to gain overall market share, we may be looking at IE from the wrong angle. IE10 does not have to revert IE market share declines immediately to be the success that Microsoft needs - at least, not in the short term.
Market Share Perception
Internet Explorer Market share is at about 55 percent if you believe NetApplications (NA), and at about 41 percent if you go with StatCounter (SC). The numbers may be very different, but both sources are painting a picture of rapid market share decline for Microsoft, while Chrome is picking up all that is lost by IE (and Firefox). Chrome certainly has the traction that is necessary to gain influence and control mindshare in the global browser market these days.
What is interesting about this trend is that Microsoft gives the impression that it does not care. Microsoft's Roger Caprioti, for example, blogs about IE market shares, but he picks a very specific and, conceivably, narrow segment - Windows 7 and IE9 - which is where IE grows.
Given the fact that IE9 has only about 8 percent of the browser market and Windows 7 has only 31 percent of the OS market (according to NA), this may seem a bit silly and is certainly easy to attack as a deceptive way to describe Microsoft browser success (or failure, depending on your view). If Microsoft has to resort to 8 percent of 31 percent of the market, the situation may be pretty desperate, right? Well, not so much. I would not describe it as desperate, but as a possibly gutsy move to regain mindshare and secure Microsoft's role in an app world that could be dominated by HTML5.
If we consider current Microsoft software (Windows 7, IE9) and realize that Windows 7 was really just a big effort to correct the (colossal) mistakes of Windows Vista and provide a bridge to a much bigger step forward (Windows 8), you could make the case that IE9 on Windows 7 is much more important for Microsoft than browsers on other operating systems (including Windows Vista and Windows XP). While Firefox and Chrome are picking up many "old" Windows XP users who are left behind by IE (which could be problematic for Microsoft in the long run), Microsoft is effectively modernizing its user base in preparation for the launch of Windows 8. At some point, Microsoft may have decided that it still has an interest in converting those IE6/IE7/IE8 users, but it may be more important to get Windows 7 users specifically to use IE9. In the end, Microsoft could not care less how much market share Google's Chrome has on Windows XP, especially if Windows 8 HTML5 apps require feature support that is well-supported by their own IE9 and IE10 browsers.
In that view, an 8 percent global browser market share for IE9 may not be as important for Microsoft as knowing that IE9 is the most popular HTML5 browser on Windows 7 with a 20.4 percent share, followed by Chrome with 18.3 percent and Firefox 6 with 13.2 percent. While IE9 could generally be seen as a train wreck that has failed to capture overall market share, it has done fairly well on Windows 7 so far and helped rebuild a reputation Microsoft lost some time ago. Most importantly, IE9 is a transitional browser that has created a playground for web developers and software engineers to establish a browser platform for HTML5 applications that are expected to surface in Windows 8.
IE10: The Big Task Ahead
Microsoft will also have to make some tough decisions regarding web video format support, flash support, and, most importantly, the integration of Silverlight. IE10 is unlikely to shed Silverlight, but Microsoft will have to figure out a way how to gracefully integrate WebGL in IE10, as WebGL and the following WebCL are emerging as powerhouse animation environments for web browsers. I do not believe Microsoft will be able to ignore WebGL much longer.
As IE9 is focused on Windows 7, IE10 will be tailored to work with Windows 8 while being primarily tasked with the challenge of providing an easy upgrade path from one platform (Windows 7/IE9) to another (Windows 8/IE10). If we look at Microsoft's desperate situation with Windows Vista/IE7/8 just a few years ago, the aggressive move away from old platforms to newer software makes sense as there will be one or two IE versions which fully support web applications that leverage core Windows features to replace local desktop apps. You can always argue whether Microsoft should have included Windows XP users in the equation, but we have to be realistic and see that XP is now more than 10 years old and Microsoft has to move on to newer environments. In the end, it's a business decision.
IE10 will be able to build, in part, on the Windows/IE9 user base. Microsoft is likely to use IE10 as a vehicle to visualize the Windows 8 message and its new application model: IE10 will be one of the critical building blocks of Windows 8. It will be more successful, initially, if IE9 can capture significant market share in Windows 7. Of course, it would be beneficial if Microsoft were to find a way to automatically transition those users to IE10 when they upgrade to Windows 8. It is still a major problem for Microsoft that it cannot automatically upgrade the browsers of its users. Consider IE9 a strategy to build market share, while IE10 can take the foundation and get a head start on the future. In the end, IE10 will be Microsoft's most important tool to enable an HTML5 app opportunity in Windows 8.