Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Opera Clash on Support Philosophy

Microsoft and Opera are taking radically different approaches to support for older versions of their respective browsers, for different reasons.

To support or not support older versions of a product? For Microsoft and Opera, that's becoming the question.

Opera introduced its Opera Mini 6 and Opera Mobile 11 browsers March 22, just in time for last week's CTIA conference in Orlando, Fla. As with any browser upgrade, the two newest additions to Opera's software family boast faster performance and tweaks to the user interface.

Opera Mini 6 has been designed for Android, BlackBerry, Symbian and J2ME devices, while Opera Mobile 11 is intended for Android, Symbian, Windows 7 desktops, and the labs releases of the MeeGo and Maemo platforms. There's fully optimized pinch-to-zoom now, along with the ability to post information on social networks via a built-in "share" button.

Opera also took care to optimize its Mobile 11 browser for the rapidly growing tablet segment. "It's a bit shinier," Opera co-founder Jon von Tetzchner told eWEEK during an interview at CTIA.

Despite Opera's focus on this newest advance, von Tetzchner also suggested that the company would continue to fully support older versions of its browser, the better to run on the more antiquated machines that continue to hold a robust presence in some of Opera's key markets, including Africa and parts of Asia. The lifespan of many devices used worldwide, he added, tends to greatly exceed that of their counterparts in the United States.

Part of Opera's development process, he said, was to give "the best of care onto all devices as soon as possible."

Opera's full-throated support and maintenance for older versions of its products stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of one of its key competitors, Microsoft, which is desperate to kill off the aging Internet Explorer 6.

A new Microsoft-build Website, "The Internet Explorer 6 Countdown," uses data from analytics firm Net Applications to break down IE6 usage around the world. Despite its tiny market share in countries like the United States (2.9 percent) and Canada (3.3 percent), the browser holds a substantial portion of the market in much of Asia, including China (34.5 percent), South Korea (24.8 percent) and Japan (10.3 percent).

"The Web has changed significantly over the past 10 years," reads a note on the Website. "The browser has evolved to adapt to new Web technologies, and the latest versions of Internet Explorer to help protect you from new attacks and threats."

Despite Microsoft's push, however, a number of users rely on IE6 as part of Windows XP, another legacy platform the company wants the world to abandon in favor of Windows 7. Some enterprises and small- to midsize businesses also depend on IE6 for older proprietary applications.

In its place, Microsoft is recommending that people upgrade to Internet Explorer 9 (unsupported by Windows XP), which the company insists sets new standards for security and speed; the browser leverages the user's CPU and GPU, along with a revamped JavaScript engine named Chakra, to render Web pages and rich content more quickly. Microsoft also stripped down IE9's browser interface down to a translucent frame with some minimalist widgets, the better to bring Web content front and center.

The Internet Explorer franchise continues to hold 56.77 percent of the browser market, according to Net Applications, versus Opera at 2.15 percent and Opera Mini at 1.12 percent. Opera's market share has remained relatively steady over the past year, in contrast to Microsoft's noticeable decline in the face of fierce competition from Firefox, Chrome and other competitors.

Will Microsoft's philosophy-killing off older versions of its Web browsers in the name of security and speed-help or harm it with regard to market-share? It's difficult to predict the answer to that question. But it'll be interesting to see if the opposite tactic-continuing to support older versions of products, with an eye towards developing markets-eventually pays off in higher market-share dividends for Opera and its ilk.