Microsoft spurs Browsium to rewrite tool for running IE6 on Windows 7

Microsoft has spurred Browsium to rewrite its tool for running IE6 on Windows 7, limiting the security threat posed by continued use of IE6.

Pressure from Microsoft has forced US-based software company Browsium to rewrite its UniBrows Web browser plug-in, which allows companies to run legacy Web applications while using Windows 7.

The company has now produced ION, a new version of its earlier UniBrows product, reconfigured to circumvent charges made by Microsoft that it did not follow software licensing compliance guidelines.

Microsoft was not super-happy with the solution. They liked the end, which was helping customers to move to Windows 7, but they didn’t like the means, running the IE6 engine inside 
IE 8 or 9.

Gary Schare

UniBrows allows the Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) rendering engine to work within a more modern version of Internet Explorer. It was designed for users running IE6 on Windows 7, enabling access to legacy corporate Web applications designed for IE6 without any formatting problems or difficulties. More importantly, it prevents the IE6 browser from making permanent changes to the host system, limiting the security threat posed by continued use of IE6.

Browsium was founded by former members of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer development team. UniBrows was designed for the thousands of organisations who have not yet undertaken an IE6 migration and are still running Windows XP and IE6 on their desktop computers. With support for XP ceasing at the end of 2013, these organisations need to upgrade to Windows 7 and later versions of Internet Explorer to maintain support. But for many, the Web applications they developed to run under IE6 cannot be ported easily to the more modern platforms. 

UniBrows was launched in March 2011 and by the end of the year had won several European clients, including Avis Rent A Car. The initial UniBrows product operated by running a copy of the IE6 engine within IE8 or IE9 so the formatting and security settings of legacy applications could be handled within the user’s machine. While Microsoft did not formally band the product, the Browsium founders said Microsoft did not entirely approve of its code being used in this way. 

“Microsoft was not super-happy with the [Unibrows] solution. They liked the end, which was helping customers to move to Windows 7, but they didn’t like the means, running the IE6 engine inside IE 8 or 9,” said Gary Schare, president of Browsium. “It created some friction and some doubts in users’ minds. We figured it was no way to run a long-term business.”

As a result, Browsium has re-engineered the product, now called Ion, to work within any version of Internet Explorer without the need for an IE6 engine. Ion still has the ability to manage the configurations and security settings of an application written for IE6.

“We had been trying to tackle two main problems,“ said Browsium CTO Matt Crowley. “First was the layout and rendering of the webpage [between different versions of IE], and then everything else: the security, scripting and ActiveX controls.”

Crowley said IE9 now handles rendering incompatibilities by itself. “The real problem is that the IE6 configurations and security settings for ActiveX controls and scripting were not ported up as well,” he said. “Ion uses the engines built into IE8 and beyond, but recreates the configurations and settings needed to run the IE6 applications.”

According to Browsium, this means users of Windows 7 can still use their older Web applications without any need for legacy applications to be recoded or for the users to change the way they work.

Crowley conceded that UniBrows had struggled to work with some legacy applications, and claimed Ion is now more versatile and capable. “Ion without the IE6 engine solves more problems than UniBrows,” he said. “In Ion, the process is all sandboxed, emulating the IE6 security and scripting environment, and taking advantage of the backwards compatibility for layout and rendering in later versions of IE.”

He added that UniBrows users would receive a free upgrade to Ion, as well as free support to make the change.

Clive Longbottom, an analyst with Windsor-based consultancy Quocirca, said the Browsium products served a real need in UK businesses. “Most companies wouldn’t touch Windows Vista with a bargepole and preferred to wait for Windows 7 to prove itself,” he said. “The situation has been allowed to slide, and many desktop renewal projects are on hold due to the economic climate, so the IE6 problem still hasn't been tackled.”

While Windows 7 allows XP programs to operate in a virtualised mode, Longbottom said that approach requires a more high-powered PC to run both environments together, and is not seamless to the user. “It requires knowledge from the user as to when to run in native or virtual mode, or some clever coding from the IT group to make it automatic.  It works, but it sure ain't elegant,” he said.

Longbottom said the main advantage of Ion over UniBrows is that it provides better integration between the IE6-based applications and newer Web-based features. “UniBrows did not allow the environments to talk nicely together. For example, it allowed an old Web-enabled Siebel app to run, but you could not modernise this by doing mashups with external capabilities such as Google Maps in any secure manner,” he said. “Ion cures this. The new means of running old front ends is fully integrated into newer versions of IE, and mashups can be done quite easily.”

With the 2013 deadline looming for the end of IE6 support, Longbottom said many UK organisations, and especially government agencies, are now feeling pressure to act. “The cost of migrating old Web-enabled apps to new versions of IE is seen as a big issue -- nowhere more so than in the public sector,” he said.

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