Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Why an IE popup blocker could save MS’s bacon

As you may well be aware by now, the next version of IE, 6.01, will include a pop-up blocker, and this will be included as part of the fortcoming second service pack for Windows XP. Popups really have become one of the scourges of the internet – after junk email they are probably one of the most annoying things out there, so it’s good that Microsoft have finally decided to do something about them.


The old argument about using another browser or getting a separate popup blocker doesn’t always hold water. It’s fine if you’re a more savvy computer user, have your own machine and are competent at installing software. But many users aren’t.
There are three main reasons, in my mind, why people do not install popup blockers:

  1. They don’t know that such a thing exists. As part of my degree course I’ve been hearing talks from people in industry, where the general feeling is that computers will go wrong, and/or annoy people. For some people, popups seem to be part of this “annoyance process” – these people just accept they are there and assume they either aren’t a problem or not a problem that can be fixed.
  2. They don’t know how to. Installing software isn’t exactly rocket science but many people either aren’t aware that you can install additional software or wouldn’t know where to start.
  3. They can’t install software. Think about computers in schools, companies and universities, where the typical user won’t be able to install software due to insufficient priviledges, even if they know how to.

With the ‘use another browser’ argument, you have to remember that alternatives like Opera and Mozilla have different rendering engines which may not be able to render a users favourite web sites, or pages on the company intranet, for example, and there’s also the learning curve associated with using an unfamiliar interface. This is particularly a problem with Mozilla, although Firefox will hopefully alleviate that.
But the very fact that IE will include a popup blocker built-in could really save Microsoft’s bacon in future. Think back to August 2002 when Windows XP service pack 1 came out. This was the first time a major service pack had been released for a consumer OS – those who had been used to using Windows 95, 98 and Me would perhaps find the concept of service packs quite bizarre. More to the point, you would be downloading a 100+MB package that did, well, not much. Yes, it fixed a variety of security vunerabilities, but other than adding a new icon on the Start menu it didn’t really add any new functionality. Try explaining to a user who knows nothing about computer security that they should download this huge great thing just for one new icon that they’ll probably never use, and gauge their reaction. They’re probably wondering what you’d been smoking that morning.
With service pack 2, however, post-update Windows XP will have new features, and, more than that, features that people will notice, and find useful. The popup blocker. The better Wireless network applet. The improved firewall. Things like this will affect quite a big proportion of Windows’ user base, and make the update more worthwhile. Naturally it’ll include a whole raft of fixes, but Joe User isn’t going to care about those.
Let’s hope that this trend continues – anyone want to guess what new feature will be in Service Pack 3?

One Comment

  1. Well, this is interesting. And nice. We’ve been telling people who call into the Helpdesk that MS is going to make a pop-up blocker for IE, so hurrah. In addition to the people who don’t have sysadmin privledges, there are the people who — using our advice — don’t download anything ‘foreign’ onto their machine. However, they see the MS “I have an update!” thing pop up, and tell it NOT to install. Eventually their computer will get compromised, we get contacted, and end up having to download all the SPs, patches, and whatnot. We’ve been trying to get that working from the Supreme Sys Admin aspect, so that people don’t have to do it, but still. It’s frustrating.
    I am eagerly awaiting the new flood of people who have issues with this.
    Unrelated: have you seen Office 2K3 yet? It’s very Ximian Evolution-like.