The new European browser menu launched this week, and Microsoft in many ways faces a no-win situation. These past few years have been a doozy for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. After extricating itself from a legal mess with Netscape, its IE6 browser braved on and captured more than two-thirds of the market at its height in the fall of 2003. While unbundled, IE’s fortunes remained closely tied the operating system, and so Vista’s failure to displace XP as the standard image for many enterprises around the world also impacted IE7 and IE8’s uptake. Even with the well-received launch of Windows 7, IE’s overall erosion accelerated this past year.

When AOL stopped development of the Netscape browser, it left Mozilla’s Firefox to challenge IE’s dominance. And it's put up a good fight. Firefox today can claim browser market leadership for tech enthusiasts, with 46.5% of the market compared to 35% for all IE versions combined, according to the latest WC3Schools data. Google also started muscling in with Chrome. After a year-and-a-half on the market, Google finally took Chrome to the people, delivering a marketing onslaught in Europe to coincide with the new browser menu. It seems to be paying off: In January, Google’s Chrome cracked double digits and crept further up in February to 11.6% of the market share. Other market data sources like Netmarketshare aren't quite as bad for IE, placing all versions of IE combined at 62% of the market versus 24% for Firefox and 5.6% for Chrome. Opera, which initiated the European litigation, only captures 2% of the market but said it's already feeling the benefit of the browser menu.

But who really cares about browser market share other than the vendors and web developers? I mean, really, they seem to be free and plentiful. Consumers and information workers want web sites to work correctly, for their activities to be secure, and to have features that improve their web browsing experience like speed, add-ons, and customization. But despite improvements on all of these fronts with IE8, particularly around security, Microsoft’s IE6 remains entrenched in many global enterprises, because choice is often dependent on customizations with third-party apps, operating system upgrades, or security/compliance concerns. In these cases, European browser menu choice matters little.

Microsoft has been trying to clean up its web browser mess for enterprises by reaffirming its commitment to interoperability and standards for web browsers and ensuring compatibility between IE7 and IE8. It’s been advocating for more than a year for customers to upgrade to IE8, even if it’s obligated to continue support of IE6 until 2014. But it now seems the acrimony over IE6 is reaching near-hysterical levels, from an online petition in the UK for the British government to ditch IE6 to the revelation that the recent Google hacker attack in China exploited a vulnerability in IE6. (Yes, you read it right: Google was using IE6.)

All of this puts Microsoft in a no-win situation where IE6 remediation is needed. Every client I have spoken with in the past months facing this issue is either staying on IE6 or just letting users download an alternative browser, most often Firefox. Virtualization tends to be assessed and dismissed. Most customers say they will eventually upgrade IE, just as they will move to Windows 7. The effort and aggravation of IE6 application remediation may make more enterprises want to make a clean break from IE. But we don’t think they will. And Microsoft doesn’t want them to be swept away that easily either. Early indications show Microsoft is bucking up with IE9, adding HTML5 support and providing even more standards support. Now, if 6 turned up to be 9, Microsoft would definitely not mind. But for now, it remains a fine mess.