Brandon Mitchell / Development / April 7th, 2015

A Spartan Never Looks Back – Microsoft's New Approach to the Web

Last month, the Project Spartan team at Microsoft took a bold new step for its entire browser division. The change, a clean break between the legacy Internet Explorer engine and the new Spartan browser’s [Update: now Microsoft Edge], may say a lot about Microsoft’s potential return to a position as an agnostic software company.

Given the role Microsoft has played in the enterprise, IE – and Windows as a platform – has always had strong legacy support built in. With Project Spartan, Microsoft looks to change direction, plotting a forward-thinking course that looks a lot more like Google’s Chromium project than the proprietary walled garden of previous IEs. Though Microsoft will continue to support legacy enterprise needs with IE 11, Project Spartan signals Microsoft’s new approach to its products.

3788483985_2823e93eae_oLeaving the Past Behind

The Microsoft team announced in front of developers at an on-campus workshop the new Project Spartan browser would no longer have support for the legacy rendering engine from Internet Explorer, and Internet Explorer 11 will not be receiving an update to run the new Spartan engine. On the surface that may appear to be a separation of the projects: IE will live in one corner and Spartan will live in another. Deeper down, it signifies the Spartan team’s willingness to move forward with new web technologies, not burdened by the quirks and bugs of the old engine. By leaving Internet Explorer behind, the team has effectively killed the project and any ideas it held. Though IE has improved (slowly) over the years, it is still a platform defined by the weight of Microsoft’s old ideas and business practices.

IE always pushed proprietary technology first and standards second. Whether it was unique document modes, conditional statements for various versions of IE, proprietary tags and prefixes, or just a rendering engine that never kept up with the industry’s progress, IE represented an old way of thinking and developing that most of the web development industry had left behind. Project Spartan is now the only path to the new rendering engine and a more standards-compliant browser.

Side note: Don’t expect any new versions of Internet Explorer from here on out beyond security updates.

Joining the Winning Team

Project Spartan looks to right many of the wrongs of the Internet Explorer days by becoming Microsoft’s version of the Chromium Project. Be on the bleeding edge of web technology, embrace the development community and, in many ways, simply empower the great minds in the development world to make the most of the platform.

In addition, Project Spartan takes a page out of Google’s product development process. By allowing the introduction of experimental features and embracing the web’s constantly changing landscape, the Project Spartan team is allowing themselves to pivot more freely. Instead of holding on to its legacy, Microsoft is rethinking its core products in a way that makes them exciting again for both customers and developers.

Image credit: Arne Hückelheim
Image credit: Arne Hückelheim

The phrase “getting out of its own way” comes to mind when looking at Project Spartan. Developers were promised during the workshop that Project Spartan would, in their words, “remain ‘evergreen’ with no document modes or compatibility views introduced going forward.” As long as that holds true, developers should end up enjoying developing for the new browser. Unlike the nightmare soup of IE versions, nothing about Spartan’s engine – beyond its own performance gains over the competition – should impact developing cross-platform sites and apps.

While Chrome is still a better advocate for web standards than Microsoft’s current offerings , this embrace of standards is an important shift for Microsoft moving forward.  Google still helps develop new web tech, it and listened to the community by embracing bug fixes and improvements submitted to the Chromium project. Rather than telling developers what to do, developers and the Chromium team are working in concert to say, “We all agree this is where we should be heading.” Project Spartan should become another such endeavor, providing an outlet for developers to voice concerns or suggest improvements to the standards and technology we all use everyday.

That’s my hope. We’re on the same team now, developers and Microsoft. Let’s hug it out.

“Have you hugged a Spartan today?”

Image credit: Oren Rozen
Pedestrian sign image credit: Crystian Cruz

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