The new UI of Internet Explorer 7 included a dedicated search box adjacent to the address bar, like the then-new Firefox. As IE7 was built between 2004 and 2006, Microsoft didn’t have a very credible entry into the search engine market—Bing wouldn’t appear until 2009. The IE team made a wise decision in support of the open web—we embraced the nascent OpenSearch specification developed by Amazon for search provider specification, allowing the browser to easily discover search providers offered by the site and enabling users to easily add those providers to IE’s search box.
This was a huge win for openness– it ensured that IE users had their choice of the best search engines the web had to offer. There was no lock-in.
Aside: The Narrative
Part of the Internet Explorer team’s internal narrative1 for years was that only two browsers were properly aligned with user’s interest—the only browsers where the customer was also the user were Safari and Internet Explorer. Safari and IE were the browsers bought by the customers who purchased their vendor’s hardware and software respectively. In contrast, the story went, Firefox had one customer, Google, who paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the right to be the default search engine. Later, Chrome had many thousands of customers, the AdSense advertisers who were buying access to the real product (millions of users’ eyeballs). As a consequence, the narrative went, the IE team were champions of the user and thus we’d make every decision with only our customers’ experience in mind.
What Happened Next
Fortunately, OpenSearch was quickly successful, and both Chrome and Firefox adopted it and the window.external.AddSearchProvider API that allowed a site (upon a user-initiated action) to offer to add a new Search Provider to the browser. This enabled customers to easily access search engines both large (Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc) and niche (Amazon, MSDN, etc) within their browser of choice. Some browsers even used OpenSearch to allow users to access search providers without installing them.
… until it didn’t. The Internet Explorer team has indicated that they don’t plan to support the de facto standard AddSearchProvider API they invented in their next browser, currently codenamed Project Spartan. They’ve offered a variety of defenses of the decision (e.g. “Safari doesn’t support it so we don’t have to!”) that they’ve previously ridiculed in other contacts (e.g. Pointer Events).
Currently, in fact, Spartan is hardcoded to use just one search engine—Bing. I have no doubt that the Spartan team will add additional search engines to their browser before they ship, but only an open API provides the freedom for sites and users to interact without any confounding politics and economic decisions. If I want to switch to a privacy-focused engine like DuckDuckGo, that should be trivial. If I want the ability to quickly run MSDN searches, this shouldn’t require petitioning the IE development team.
Security And Privacy
Making matters worse, Spartan users’ searches are sent to Bing over the network in plaintext, despite the fact that Bing supports HTTPS and the latest versions of both Chrome and Firefox use that HTTPS provider.
Some have argued that AddSearchProvider is “too powerful” and browsers shouldn’t offer APIs that enable changes to their configuration, even with user consent. This argument is compelling until you notice what actually happens—when you take away the sandboxed, restricted API, sites don’t just throw up their hands and say “Ah well, guess we’ll go home.” Instead, they send the user executable downloads that can take any action they like on the system, changing the search provider and, while they’re at it, reconfiguring the user’s other browsers, changing the search page, throwing in a toolbar or two, or whatever. Once the user’s suckered into running your code, why not maximize the value? And the Windows ecosystem continues its swirl toward the drain…
Other users have argued that a “gallery” of search providers, like IEAddons.com is the right way to go. There are many problems with this approach. First, it requires that each site go to Microsoft, hat in hand, and register a provider. It requires that users go out of their way to go to the Gallery. Worst of it, it doesn’t provide any user workaround when the Gallery gets things wrong: for example, both Bing and Google offer HTTPS-based searches, and have for years. But if you install their official providers from the IE Gallery, you get insecure search and leak of your keystrokes as you type in the address bar. Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC) has indicated that they do not consider this a security vulnerability.
In contrast, when AddSearchProvider is supported, the search engine can itself offer the proper, secure, search URLs. Or a user can build their own provider.
Please join me in begging the Internet Explorer team to reconsider: Support freedom. #SupportOpenSearch.
Vote here to fix Spartan: Bug Tracker link
Update: Hours after this post, the April security update for IE broke the AddSearchProvider API in existing IE versions. :-(
1 The validity of this narrative is itself worthy of its own post, so please don’t bother flaming the comments below.