A Tale of Two Internet Explorers

on October 17, 2012

I have been playing with Windows 8 on a number of different devices, specifically some touch enabled, and others non-touch enabled. One of the many questions I have been wanting to analyze was how software built for Windows 8 would handle the touch experience and the physical mouse and keyboard experience at the same time. Given that Windows 8, and many Windows 8 hardware configurations, will provide consumers with three potential input mechanisms simultaneously (touch, mouse / trackpad, keyboard).

In concept this sounds like a compelling idea. However, in execution it may be more tricky.

Although I keep in my mind that Windows 8 is still early, and updates will inevitably come, I found how Microsoft handled this dual-state touch + mouse and keyboard scenario with Windows Explorer. Microsoft decided that it would be best to include two different versions of Windows Explorer on Windows 8. There is a Modern UI (Metro) version of IE and there is also the all familiar desktop version of IE. One can be accessed while using Modern UI mode, and the other can be accessed from desktop mode. One is built specifically for touch and one is not. Here are a few simple examples of how that works.

When in Modern UI version of Internet Explorer (version 10), I get a much simpler and full screen user interface. In this Explorer touch works well with links, pinch and zoom, scoll, etc., all work as expected. When I get to a web page with a text input box, the soft keyboard automatically appears so I may enter text.

In desktop version of IE, touch, although supported, does not work nearly as well. Touching links sometimes requires multiple touches, put more importantly when you click a text entry box like the URL bar or a search field, no soft keyboard comes up. This version of IE is built more with the assumption that a mouse / trackpad and physical keyboard is present.

What strikes me about this approach is that it may not be a big deal for some hardware configurations, but it will be a big deal for others. I am caused to wonder about the number of Windows 8 tablets which will be sold without a keyboard included. Will consumers be wise enough to realize that they should avoid using desktop IE on their Windows 8 tablet? Will they even understand there are two different versions designed to work specifically in different modes? Perhaps an equally provocative question is why isn’t the software smart enough to know whether a physical keyboard or trackpad is adjust the experience accordingly. For example, if I happen to be in the desktop version of IE but am using the tablet without a mouse and keyboard present or docked, the soft keyboard should come up automatically.

It is very odd when you are using the desktop version of IE in tablet only mode and you click to enter text and no keyboard comes up. Confusion may abound. However, there is an icon in the lower left hand corner that you can click to bring up the soft keyboard. Perhaps I am nit picking but if no keyboard is present this should happen automatically no matter what the application or mode. I’d even question the presence of the desktop mode in Windows 8 when a physical keyboard is not docked or synced for that matter.

It is this kind of intelligent context switching that is still lacking with many of my experiences with Windows 8. Although I am speculating, I believe that the vast amount of input mechanisms being supported are the point of the challenge.

How software developers and Microsoft handle the multiple context switching opportunities as well as input mechanisms will be fascinating to see. Microsoft has done it by including two different versions of the same application. Let’s hope other software developers can figure out how to harness touch, mouse / trackpad, and soft / physical keyboard all in one program intelligently.

For more reading here is a Quora question someone asked as to why Windows 8 has two different versions of IE. Also here is an article on TechRepublic focusing on how to make desktop IE the default IE to open when clicking a link.