For many, the browser is Windows

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I got one of those “Help. My computer is popping up windows everywhere and I lost my favorites. Please help me.” calls from a neighbor the other night.

So I packed up my triage bag and slumbered over to their house, expecting the worst. It wasn’t all that bad actually. A rouge “spyware removal” app had kindly installed itself and a handful of other junk.

The fix? I downloaded “Microsoft Windows AntiSpyware” and poof, pretty much all the spyware was gone.

This didn’t quite fix the problem though. The toolbars in IE had changed and this really confused the person. It took me a few seconds to realize also that they didn’t mean “favorites” as in IE favorites, but rather that they had been relying upon Google’s drop-list search history to find specific sites. I thought “what an interesting way to think of favorites.” Fortunately, the “favorites” were still there. The Google bar was there too in IE. It’s just that an MSN toolbar and a couple other toolbars (I can’t recall their names right now) were there now too and had shoved the Google bar aside.

Yep, for many users they’d really like an immutable interface for the most important things they do–namely (browser-based) emailing , reading the news, and paying bills. IE doesn’t play that way. Add a toolbar and things can be moved here or there.

Another thing I learned, the person was unsure of which toolbars they had before and where they were. They were just so used to everything being in a certail place they never thought about trying to remember what was where. I can appreciate that. So it got me thinking, what might be nice in IE (actually for many environments with flexible docking windows, such as Visual Studio) is some way to roll back. (As a developer I’d really like Windows SDK/common controls help here.) Another possibility, in the case of IE: what about overlaying with pink any new toolbars so they require an explicit “Yeah, I want this.” and if I don’t IE will pop back to a restore point. And if I change my mind again, I can return back.

Maybe I’m getting too complicated here, so let me get back to my bigger realization here: For this person and I think many others IE is their computing environment. Reality is what reality is.

Don’t get me wrong. This person uses IM and Skype too. There are other client-side apps running. But IE is their Pocket PC-like desktop for launching things.

Why? It’s simple. The browser is where they do most of their “work” and it is where they stay connected.

Take away the Internet. Take away the browser. And, you know what? I bet this person and many, many others that I know who use computers (you know the big-desktop-kind) wouldn’t have them at all.

What does all this mean? There is a tremendous burden right now on the IE team. It’s not just the leading-edge, Web 2.0-types that want a better IE. It’s not just the IT shop that would like to see better security. As this person pointed out to me in their hour of crisis: People want IE to be the center of their desktop-oriented experience. For them, the browser is Windows.

If you’re shrugging your shoulders saying “So what. People have been saying this for years.” I’m with you. I remember well the early days of the browser wars, when people predicted that the browser would become the OS and “negate” Windows. The truth is that for a large, growing number of non-Office users, it has. (Actually Windows is still very much critical, but just let me exagerate for a couple more minutes.) Despite everything that Microsoft did to defend Windows (or some might argue that because of IE’s competitiveness), the browser won.

What’s so unfortunate here–from a developer standpoint–is that the browser has one of the weakest dev stories you can imagine. It’s like a Sarah Winchester Platform. Plant some HTML, cart in some CSS, tack on DHTML, sprinke some AJAX, board up the perimeter with a back end, and on and on. And then there’s the whole security story. And extensibility. And, and, and.

Browsers–whether it be IE or Firefox or whatever–do have a lot of flexibility. And there are standards. But so much of the platform story is so weak. One big challenge I see is at the dev/tools level, where there’s so much to do. Why? Because at the product level there’s even more to do. As a developer I want to develop apps that people want to use. And as a user, there’s so much I’d like to see. I’d like to see ink go where the users are, for instance. I’d like to see a real word processor as “standard” as Flash is in a web-page. I’d like to see a dev platform include a browser-based collection of apps (including bug-tracking, order management, CRM, and so on). There’s so much to do.