By the time you read this, Microsoft will have released its latest web browser, Internet Explorer 9, to an adoring public. IE 9 is a truly advanced browser, with useful and exciting new features for end users that place a special emphasis on the websites they visit. And it even has some important security enhancements, such as tracking protection and an ActiveX filter that will be welcome in many business environments.

Businesses, however, might feel a bit let down by IE 9 overall. And that's because IE 9, like IE 8 before it, does nothing to address the one browser issue that still dogs many corporate sites. That is, it doesn't address the IE 6 compatibility issue.

While Microsoft can be somewhat excused for focusing on big ticket consumer features in IE 9, it's a bit unclear how the company has left this gaping hole in its migration strategy for its key demographic for so long. In Windows Vista and 7, for example, the company shipped dramatic application compatibility improvements. But it also left browser compatibility completely untouched, a factor in Vista's lack of traction with businesses and, to this day, IE 6's surprisingly strong hold on businesses after a decade in the market.

This success—well, longevity—can be tied back directly to the early 2000s, when IE 6 had a 90 percent stranglehold on the browser market. Back then, targeting IE 6 with intranet, extranet, and websites wasn't just common sense, it was pretty much the only viable option. And so in an agewant when businesses were moving online en masse, they were doing so with IE 6.

In retrospect, coding for IE 6 was a mistake as this browser turned into a security and web standards nightmare. But who could have foreseen a future in which Microsoft essentially abandoned browser development for years, leaving IE 6 as its only option, a time during which a new breed of competitors arose, first Firefox and then later Chrome?

Microsoft has been making up for its missteps in the browser market for years now, but it's never really addressed the business site compatibility issue. Instead, it relies on big, complex and expensive virtualization solutions, such as Application Virtualization (App-V) and Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V), to get customers over the hump. These are decent solutions for a variety of needs, but if what you want is simple IE 6 compatibility, they're overkill.

 

So late last year, I took an early look at a third-party solution called Browsium UniBrows (Read Solving IE 6 Compatibility Issues Doesn't Require Expense, Complexity of Virtualization for more). At the time, it was available only in a limited beta test. But today, UniBrows is available to one and all, and if what you're looking for is IE 6 site compatibility in any modern version of IE, then this is the solution for you.

Since the beta, I've also had the chance to actually use UniBrows. And it works. You can run particular web applications in an IE 8 or 9 tab that is using the IE 6 rendering engine. Not just part of it, or a subset of it; the real IE 6. And this isn't limited to just the browser: You can also specify that particular sites and apps utilize particular versions of different ActiveX controls, such as Flash or Java.

This means it's possible, in a single IE window, to load and simultaneously utilize multiple versions of IE, Flash, and Java (among other things), all at the same time. It means you can run your existing web apps in Windows 7, using IE 8 or 9, and not worry about compatibility with these legacy solutions, possibly ever. You can migrate or upgrade these legacy sites on your schedule, not Microsoft's, and spend money on forward-leaning infrastructure—SharePoint, or whatever—without worrying about inadvertently killing your line of business apps.

UniBrows works so well it's almost hilarious. And the management interface, called UniBrows Configuration Manager, makes it relatively easy to create the rules that drive the behavior of IE in your environment. A typical rule scenario: Certain websites (that, certain URLs) will cause IE to load a different browser profile, which can consist of built-in profiles (Basic IE 6, IE 8 in IE 7 Compatibility Mode, and so on) as well as your own more customized profiles.

You can create your own profiles based on the stock profiles, specifying such things as the browser engine, the scope (machine or user), the user agent string it presents (for compatibility purposes), and whether to disable DEP and NX support. If this profile needs to use custom (typically older) versions of particular ActiveX controls, you load those as part of the profile too (Browsium provides guidance about this on its website), as well as any custom Registry values or other variables. Normally, it's just a matter of matching up the right rendering engine (say, IE 6) with the right ActiveX control versions, and you're good to go.

UniBrows rules support Group Policy (GP), and can be applied per PC or per user. UCM exports to classic ADM templates or the newer ADMX template style. Then you just push them out with your current electronic software distribution system.

For users, there's little indication that anything special is happening, though UniBrows does add a
"ub:" prefix to those sites that are changed by the product for troubleshooting and Help desk purposes. But the big deal here is that the sites your users need keep working, and most of them will be none the wiser. (Though they'll probably notice that upgrade to Windows 7 and be quite happy with it.)

UniBrows costs $5,000 plus a per-seat license with tiered pricing based on volume. (50,000 and fewer seats are $5 per seat per year), a far cry from the millions of dollars a virtualization scheme could run in an enterprise environment. Why Microsoft didn't create such a solution is unclear. But Browsium, a small company not coincidentally consisting of a number of ex-Microsofties, has stepped in to fill the void.