In my recent articles I've explored the concept of the Universal Canvas, a term made popular by Microsoft when it launched .NET in 2000. But things just got interesting, with the news that Microsoft will phase out its Internet Explorer browser as a standalone product. Internet Explorer will be integrated it into Microsoft's next-generation Operating System codenamed Longhorn.
But what does that mean exactly? How will the Internet Explorer web browser be integrated into the OS and what effect will this have?
In a nutshell, it means IE components will be converted into CLR components. CLR stands for "Common Language Runtime" and it is the engine that drives the .NET platform. The CLR sits on top of the Operating System and provides developers with a set of services.
Ahmet Zorlu speculates that CLR components such as Web Services clients and P2P applications will be introduced into the browser, and current IE components such as the plug-ins and Active-X controls (e.g. Flash Player) will be converted to .NET.
Frans Bouma also thinks the CLR is where IE will end up. He says that HTML or other markup "will be rendered by components embedded in other applications, like helpviewer, blog readers and other tools. Such a component can be embedded in winforms as well, as a control."
But whoa, before we get starry-eyed for the future, let's step back for a moment and review Internet Explorer in its current form. Basically it is made up of a number of components. The two main components are called the WebBrowser control and MSHTML. I won't go into gory details, you can read Microsoft's documentation for that. Suffice to say that Internet Explorer is based on a component architecture - and what's more, as of version 4.0 this became "an integrated part of the Windows shell". Version 5.5 added lots of new functionality, including editing capability using e.g. behaviours and the "contenteditable=true" declaration. IE 6 is the latest version and it looks like we're stuck with it for a while - until Longhorn is released.
.NET is also a component-based architecture, but on a larger scale. Internet Explorer is like a small fish about to be fed to a larger fish called .NET.
This is what it comes down to - IE will become JAFWC (Just Another F*cking Windows Component). It will no longer be a standalone product that can be plugged in to any OS - it will only run on the Windows platform.
So what are the benefits of having Internet Explorer subsumed within the OS? It will have a much cleaner architecture - no more plug-ins and add-ons. And we'll finally get a decent edit control, which will enable the browser to once again be editable as Tim Berners-Lee originally intended it to be. The Universal Canvas may finally become reality, albeit in a Microsoft world.