A Next Generation Blog

Why Is IE Slow?

Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer a.k.a. IE. If I ask you to describe it in a nutshell, most probably your answer will be – “Crap”. But have you ever wondered why? What is the reason behind the sorry state of the once “fastest browser” on the web?

Lack of development and Microsoft’s Enthusiasm

Back in the mid-late 1990s, Microsoft recruited its absolute sharpest talent to work on the Internet problem – the browser (IE) and server (IIS) teams. They invented things that hadn’t been done before such as, address bar auto-complete or forms, dynamic HTML now known as Ajax, the XML pre-cursor to RSS and (sadly) ActiveX(later to be removed in IE10 due to security issues). And Internet Explorer was twice as fast as and 100 times more stable than its rival, the crash-prone Netscape Navigator. All of these things helped Internet Explorer 5.0 win share, and win 100% of all product reviews vs. the competition. It was also the first major browser with CSS support, SSL, cookies, VRML, RSA, and Internet newsgroups. Not only windows, IE also had builds for Mac (it was the default browser in older Macs!) and UNIX (believe it or not, it’s true!). Internet Explorer attained a peak of about 95% usage share during 2002 and 2003.But since then, its usage share has declined with the launch of Safari (2003),Firefox (2004), and Google Chrome (2008), each of which now has significant market share. As of October 2012, estimates for Internet Explorer’s overall market share range from 25% to 30%.

After the release of Internet Explorer 5.0, the project was shifted towards more of what one would call “maintenance mode”. Much of the entire team itself was moved in bulk to a new project (WPF). Part stayed behind to ship Internet Explorer 5.5 and Internet Explorer 6.0, which were mostly about bug-fixing and matching the Windows UI. But most were reorganized into the MSN division to build MSN Explorer. At the time, Microsoft had decided that the browser war was over, browsers were history, and the new enemy was AOL.

The attitude was that there’s no innovation left to be done in the browser; it was still believed that the future of applications would be desktop based. That’s why there was a five-year gap between Internet Explorer 6 and Internet Explorer 7 – the Internet Explorer team didn’t exist for a while before Firefox came along with tabbed browsing and disrupted everything. This also set them back in supporting standards; they had to build a team while Firefox was marching along innovating and implementing W3C.

Microsoft’s software support policy was also another hindrance. They generally support a piece of software for about 10 years. They had to fully test their software before any release which was a very long process as well as provide support for existing versions. Firefox and Chrome are released “AS IS” and thus had no problem embarking a rapid release cycle, constantly improvising performance as well as adding new features.

Decade old codebase

Internet Explorer itself is locked down to code which has been established since 15 years ago. Efforts have been made to modernise it; but unlike Windows Phone 8 – which Microsoft claims to be coded totally from the ground up, Internet Explorer is not so. In 1995 during the Netscape vs. Internet Explorer browser wars, there were no standards or W3C; both companies were making it up as they went along. It used to be just HTML before Netscape decided to put JavaScript in the browser. So without knowing what the Internet was yet, or what the browser would become (Chrome was released in 2008… Google had far better knowledge about the present and the future of the internet.), Netscape and Microsoft were developing, likely using old school waterfall techniques on pretty slow hardware. No wonder why Internet Explorer has problems as their legacy code is a mess. It still continues to use obsolete technologies (Temporary Internet Files… remember it’s still there), albeit once efficient (during the days of 56 kbps dial-up), are a great performance killer in today’s times of 3G and FiOS with the coupled power of modern hybrid hardware.

Proprietary Technologies

This has been true since the Internet Explorer vs. Netscape Navigator war – both vendors have been developing their own standards. Today, it is still so. And a closed solution, bundled with less-adept programmers, further aggravates the situation. IE developed its own rendering engine – “Trident” (seems Indian…? its JavaScript engine is Chakra!). Internet Explorer 6 was undoubtedly the innovator in the wild west of the standard less world of 2001 when it was released. Microsoft really did a pioneering job producing a world-class browser that the entire world used – it just wasn’t meant to last for as long as it did. In the mean time, once crushed and dead Netscape was made open source and was resurrected to be the Mozilla Project, which later developed into the Firefox that we know today.

In contrast, Firefox’s Gecko, Chrome and Safari’s WebKit are all open-source. They all rely heavily on open source libraries to run. While almost all of Internet Explorer is custom written which is quite a bigger challenge than using code that a world of developers have battle-tested in thousands of their projects. Using (and not using) open source and leveraging communities definitely make a difference in development and performance.

Windows Integration

Started the issue when Microsoft integrated IE into Windows as a necessary component, and made it problematic to uninstall and use an alternate browser. At that time the whole business with them started devastating their monopoly to try and push Netscape out of the market, and numerous people started viewing Microsoft as the evil empire. This also made easy for other programs to install a lot of add-ons that made IE a lot and lot slower (MS Office does too…). The “Active Desktop” (removed in vista) and the “Shell” (shared with Explorer) along with COM and registry configurations all intricated its boot-up initialisation (any application registering a COM DLL became a performance-killer of IE) giving ever-worsening start-up times compared to others who fire up in an instant.

Stability vs. Speed

When loading a webpage in Firefox/Chrome, the page gets loaded gradually (incremental rendering). As soon as any HTML is received it is rendered and then after a successful page-load any script code is executed. Internet Explorer, however, waits until the request is completely received and then any script, if present, is executed before rendering. This gives the impression that the page is unresponsive for a short period. But the overall page performance is good as there are less rendering glitches and sudden UI changes that you might experience in other browsers. Speed was the price that was paid for stability.

IE, till version 8, used GDI to do all rendering but other browsers used techniques like Direct2D and even custom UI Toolkits (Mozilla’s XUL, for example) making things even faster. Anyways, support for hardware-accelerated rendering has been included since IE9.

User Perception

The ultimate judge of any piece of software is the end user. But sadly, human psychology is such that if someone says you some product X is faster and smarter that the stock stuff (I agree… its generally so but, not necessarily), we believe that almost blindly. The same also applies to IE. People always have a tendency to reject the stock software and search for an alternative. No matter how productive it might be, to users it always appears as a “bloat ware”. It’s the same reason we spend bucks on procuring proprietary paid stuff, branding them better than their open-source counterparts. Since IE has always been included with Windows, people always viewed it in a negative perception and moved to other browsers dazzled by their glittering tag lines and amazed by their simulated fastness.

Even though, IE lacks enhanced support for new technologies such as HTML5, it still packs all that you need for a good browsing experience. It also packs a built-in privacy and tracking protection, a good popup blocker and an ad-blocker (the TPLs can be configured to block ads… check the gallery) Yap, if your IE feels slow, then try disabling (if possible removing) some of unnecessary add-ons and BHO’s. If the settings are messed up, try resetting them. Then compare the page load activity indicator with leading browsers and see the results. I’m sure you’ll be surprised!

1 Comment
  1. Carmen Hinshaw says

    Internet Explorer (formerly Microsoft Internet Explorer and Windows Internet Explorer, commonly abbreviated IE or MSIE) is a series of graphical web browsers developed by Microsoft and included as part of the Microsoft Windows line of operating systems, starting in 1995. It was first released as part of the add-on package Plus! for Windows 95 that year. Later versions were available as free downloads, or in service packs, and included in the OEM service releases of Windows 95 and later versions of Windows.`.^’

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