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Ballmer chanted his hallmark line "developers, developers, developers" to engage participants at the Power to Developers event, but was apparently caught off guard when a student attendee posed a question about Microsoft's own internal development efforts.
The student put Ballmer on the hot seat by asking, "Why is IE still relevant and why is it worth spending money on rendering engines when there are open source ones available that can respond to changes in Web standards faster?"
"That's cheeky, but a good question, but cheeky," Ballmer replied, according to a report by TechWorld. Ballmer explained that Microsoft would need to consider the future of the browser and determine if there is any lack of innovation for the company to capitalize upon with 'proprietary extensions that broaden its functionality.'
"There will still be a lot of proprietary innovation in the browser itself so we may need to have a rendering service," Ballmer said, adding, "Open source is interesting. Apple has embraced Webkit and we may look at that, but we will continue to build extensions for IE 8."
Ballmer also admitted the delays in moving from IE 6 to IE 7 during the development of Vista under the Longhorn project. "But I don't what to go there," he said.
While Microsoft rapidly developed IE up to version six in 2001, new innovation stalled after the apparent death of the rival Netscape browser between 2000 and 2001.
The lull in Microsoft's browser efforts afforded Mozilla the opportunity to release and refine the Netscape code into what became Firefox in 2003. During the same period, KDE shipped the fast and lean KHTML browser engine, a project Apple built upon to create WebKit, the rendering engine behind Safari 1.0, also released in 2003. That web browser renaissance spurred Microsoft to deliver a new version of IE in 2006.
WebKit has subsequently been chosen by a number of developers to serve as the foundation for their web browsers and other web related tools. That includes Nokia's mobile browser, Google's new Chrome, and of course the mobile Safari browser used by Apple's iPhone.
Embracing WebKit as the basis for new generations of IE would enable Microsoft to benefit from its standards compliance and raw speed, while still enabling the software giant to extend its features with proprietary extensions, just as Apple's Safari browser adds unique features such as bookmark management and syncing, Dashboard Widget clipping, and SnapBack.
It would also give Microsoft a functional mobile browser to replace Windows Mobile's Pocket IE, a poorly regarded and nearly unusable product based on a very old version of Microsoft's proprietary web engine.