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Microsoft copies Google with silent browser updates

No more clinging to old IE versions

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Internet Explorer is about to do more than just look like Chrome - it'll silently update on your PC just like Google's browser, too.

Microsoft in January will start rolling out auto updates moving you to the latest edition of IE available for your machine's operating system.

Platforms covered are Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 and the policy means Windows XP holdouts on IE6 or IE7 get booted up to IE8 while Windows Vista and 7 users still on IE7 or even on Windows 8 get shunted up to IE9, released in March.

Silent updates will start in Australia and Brazil and you'll need to have turned on automatic updating via Windows Update.

You won't be forced to move, if you've deliberately decided old is your thing.

Microsoft makes available IE8 and IE9 Automatic Update Blocker toolkits to stop auto-updates while those who've actively declined updating in the past won't be moved.

You can also uninstall the update.

Until now, Microsoft's relied pretty much on the end-user to manage the move to a new version of IE - either by converting when they purchase a new machine with a new version of Windows on board, or when by downloading the latest version of IE online. In business, organizations will rollout an image of a standardized desktop with the browser in it.

General manager for business and marketing Ryan Gavin dressed up the change in policy here, with plenty-o-talk about making the web better and customer safer by putting them on the most up-to-date browsers. And, to be sure, there's no reason anybody should still be on IE6 - Microsoft's tried repeatedly to stamp it out with upgrade campaigns. Microsoft has been aggressively pushing HTML, which is supported better in IE9 than it has been at any other time in the history of Microsoft's browser or of HTML.

Microsoft has two real problems, however.

The first, is that the PC market is in a crisis and if Microsoft expects shipments of new PCs will help see wider update of IE9, only released in March, then it's mistaken. Sales of PCs for 2011 have been slashed by IDC, which now expects just 4.2 per cent growth down from seven per cent at the start of 2011. The outlook is unclear for 2012.

All of which hits to the bigger problem: IE8 and IE9 have failed to reverse IE's falling market share. In the last few years, Microsoft's tried everything: targeting mass-market consumers with dreamy talk about the "beauty of the web", fashion-forward hipsters with an IE9 launch at the South-by-South-West conference in March, and engineering geeks with more rapid engineering cycles: after years of literally nothing between IE6 and 7 - that helped establish Firefox - we've had IE8 in May 2010, IE9 in March 2011, and now a preview for IE10 in April this year.

Yet, IE finishes 2011 with even less market then when it entered - 52.64 per cent versus 58.64, according to Net Applications. And while Firefox has, by all accounts stalled, Chrome is growing - having taken the number-two position from Firefox in November according to StatCounter.

Indeed, StatCounter thinks Chrome really is the one to watch: Chrome 15.0 is just a few per-centage points behind IE8, on 24 per cent and it was only released in October. IE9, in play since March, is still on less than 12 per cent.

Windows needs IE, IE needs Windows

The problem is clear, if not the reason. Fast releases don't necessarily make more people use your software, as Firefox-shop Mozilla has discovered. Losing the browser would be a major set-back for Microsoft; IE is one more reason to buy Windows, and Microsoft needs those.

For example, IE9 lets you pin a website to your Windows 7 taskbar. You click on the pin when you want to visit a site, and you're taken to the site or service you want without actively surfing. You can see a list of pinned sites here and see the kind of rich, content-driven desktop idea Microsoft had in mind here.

With IE only working on Windows, however, the idea is that IE gives you one more reason to buy Windows and it gives content providers another reason to target IE. If IE disappears, there's another reason to bypass Windows.

To understand the link between Microsoft's browser and sales of Windows, consider this: IE9 was not made for Windows XP because Microsoft's priority is to sell copies of Windows 7.

Silent updates aren't just needed for IE; they are needed for Windows, too. ®

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