Microsoft has a big problem. How does it get people to develop for its widely used Web browser, when most Web design and development is done on other platforms? Having learned the lesson of "Built for IE" banners the hard way, it's fighting hard on two fronts: encouraging developers to work with the latest Internet Explorer releases, and moving users away from older browsers.
The Internet Explorer team has been using its modern.ie site to explore ways of encouraging developers to target the latest, HTML5-ready IE. Part of that story is a status page that shows what Web standards are supported and, more important, which are being considered for support. Developers can download virtual machines loaded with browsers, so they can test sites on Mac and Linux, while an experimental tool lets developers run the next IE release on Windows PCs.
That experiment with side-by-side application virtualization has led to the release of RemoteIE, a way of delivering a preview of the next Internet Explorer release from Microsoft's Azure cloud. Accessible from Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android devices, RemoteIE uses Microsoft's Azure RemoteApp to run the browser in a Windows Server VM on Azure, allowing developers to try IE against their test servers from any of these desktop or mobile platforms -- as long as those servers are accessible from the public Internet.
Announced at TechEd back in May, Azure RemoteApp is an answer to the latest iteration of the question, "Why do I need to deliver a full desktop to a tablet or a phone?" By using cloud-hosted VMs to deliver application UIs, there's no need to leave familiar ways of working for the Windows world. The technology has been slipstreamed into the latest versions of the cross-platform Remote Desktop client.
Does it work? I signed up for the trial, chose an Azure instance close to my home, and waited for the activation email. It took about 15 minutes to arrive – enough time for Microsoft's automated provisioning tools to add an account to a pre-provisioned Azure VM. Using the RemoteApp client to connect to an instance was easy enough, and I could use it from an iPad, an Android tablet, and an iPhone, as well as from a PC. Drilling down into the VM I could see I was sharing it with about 200 other users – keeping Azure resource usage to a minimum.
RemoteIE isn't perfect, with an enforced time limit cutting you off after 10 minutes of idle time or after an hour of using the service. While it's easy enough to log back on, be aware of the 10-minute window if you're trying to debug a complex problem. You also can't use the GPU-acceleration features of the latest IE releases, so it's tricky to use RemoteIE to test WebGL and other GPU-intensive Web technologies.
Using RemoteApp to deliver a browser to developers makes a lot of sense. Microsoft has the scale in Azure to run the necessary VMs, and developers no longer need to worry about the licensing issues associated with running the latest Windows on their development Macs. It's not a complete panacea. RemoteApp only works on the latest versions of Windows Server, so there's no option of delivering older Internet Explorer releases this way – though there's scope for using it with IE10 and IE11, as well as the current developer preview.
While some may complain about the absence of older browsers in the RemoteIE release, this isn't about supporting older releases. It's more about getting rid of them. With IE6 well on the way out, Microsoft is now aiming to get rid of IE7 and IE8 as well. By encouraging high-profile sites to support IE10 and IE11, Redmond hopes to encourage Windows 7 and Windows 8 users to upgrade to these more modern browsers.
Recapturing Web developer mind share is going to be hard, but getting IE back onto the Macintosh desktop – even in this roundabout way – is a start. With RemoteIE, Internet Explorer is a click away, right beside Chrome, Safari, and Firefox – making it as easy to test sites in all browsers, not only one or two. It will be interesting to see what comes next.