Microsoft refuses to let IT pros use application virtualization tools to upgrade from Internet Explorer 6 to IE8, insisting that customers use its Med-V or Terminal Services software instead. Some enterprises have continued to look for an easy and legal way to make the upgrade.
Using virtualization just to run IE6 is like cracking an egg with a sledgehammer.
Gary Schare, President, Browsium Inc.
So three former Microsoft executives and some ex-Microsoft developers spotted this opportunity and last year launched a company called Browsium. This month, they released software that runs IE6 in Windows 7 without breaking Microsoft's licensing rules.
The IE add-on product, called UniBrows, uses proprietary code to run the IE6 rendering engine inside an IE8 or IE9 tab. Since it doesn't run multiple versions of IE or redistribute the Web browser's engine, it isn't in violation of Microsoft licensing, said Gary Schare, president of Browsium, which is based in Redmond, Wash.
"We are simply swapping in a different engine, which is exactly what Microsoft does with [its] Compatibility View," he said. "We are just a different approach to that same technology."
Schare, who led Microsoft's Internet Explorer product group for four years, said Microsoft investigated the legality of UniBrows and determined that it doesn't violate any licensing rules but won't support it.
Microsoft says the supported ways to run IE6 apps on Windows 7 include using Med-V, which runs Windows XP as a virtual machine, or running Terminal Server for remote IE6 access. But those are less-than-ideal options for enterprises, said Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner Inc.
"Both require a whole extra OS instance be run on every PC that needs it," Silver said. "Most organizations don't want to have to manage, secure and support twice as many Windows instances on their networks."
For a while, Seattle-based Spoon offered a simpler way to test IE6 apps on Windows 7/IE8, but Microsoft shut down Spoon's streaming IE6 offering because it said abstracting Internet Explorer from Windows violates licensing policies. Naturally, Spoon customers left high and dry by the loss of that tool were outraged.
Microsoft's way to run IE6 on Windows 7
Though Browsium's UniBrows is technically legal, Microsoft emailed a statement urging customers to use its own products instead:
"The recommended approach is to remediate applications as this ensures a more secure and manageable environment in the long run. For customers who need temporary application compatibility assistance, we have identified a number of approved solutions including Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V), Remote Desktop Services (RDS), and Terminal Services (TS). Solutions that involve running multiple versions of Windows Internet Explorer, or portions of Windows Internet Explorer, on a single instance of Windows are not supported."
Alternatively, companies can use Citrix XenApp to deliver IE6 remotely to users. With this option, the IE6 browser is hosted on a Remote Desktop Services server and delivered using XenApp. Since XenApp doesn't separate the operating system from IE, it is fully supported, as are other products that keep Windows and IE together (such as Liquidware Labs Profile Unity).
But Microsoft customers know they can solve their IE compatibility problems with simpler tools. In fact, many IT pros turn a blind eye to the rules and continue using application virtualization software such as VMware ThinApp to virtualize IE.
Their frustration is justified, Schare said. "Using virtualization just to run IE6 is like cracking an egg with a sledgehammer," he said. "It's not practical."
Gartner's Silver said that even though Microsoft doesn't support UniBrows, the product is worth considering for companies that need a "lightweight," temporary way to run IE6 apps on Windows 7.
"Microsoft will never support Browsium or any application virtualization vendors' solutions, but we believe they should be in favor of any product that helps organizations get to Windows 7," Silver said.
UniBrows costs $5,000 for a base license fee and maintenance, plus $5 per seat per year. Support is extra.