Monday, 16 February 2009

When will we be free from Internet Explorer 6?

Another standards-compliant site completed, another day or so consumed developing non-standard workarounds to make it work in Internet Explorer 6. I found myself asking, “why do I need to spend all this extra time deviating from standards just to accommodate one poorly-designed browser?” The unfortunate truth is always, “because over one third of all the site's visitors will be using it.”

When will IE6 finally die, and what will be the straw that breaks its back? Now that XP is no longer sold with new computers, and Windows Update is installing IE7 even on XP, IE6's market share decreased rapidly for a while, but now seems to have levelled off. Although its user base is decreasing, it's not decreasing at any kind of rate that would make me confident that I can stop supporting it when I develop sites.

For anyone who isn't aware of the issue, this browser, released in 2001, fails to respect countless web standards. Of course, some standards came along after IE6 was developed, but this is just no excuse, because every other browser has been patched to accommodate this.

What's very clear is that in the late 20th or early 21st century, a lot of businesses and corporations developed their own internal computer systems using IE5, 5.5 or 6 as a web interface. For example, a bank might have written a customer relationship system that only works with IE6 as a front end. Back then, standards were far less important to web design (because fewer browsers actively supported them all) and were far less… well… standard.

When IE7 came along, a lot of these corporations found that their internal software, on which they had invested thousands or millions, would no longer work, and other corporations were unwilling to upgrade from Windows NT, due to the cost, and therefore could not install IE7 at all. Many workplaces are stuck with IE6. IE7 is not available and other browsers cannot be installed whatsoever.

It might well cost a lot of money to upgrade from NT to XP, Vista or the forthcoming Windows 7, it's true. However, consider how many (wo)man hours, and therefore how much money, has been wasted unnecessarily on developing sites that work in IE6. Consider Microsoft's own 5-year support policy as the cutoff for IE6, which would be about 2006. In this 3-year period, just how much time could have been saved by developing all websites without IE6 support? This would easily outweigh the cost to businesses and corporations of updating their internal systems or operating systems.

What would it take to finally get rid of IE6? I don't think it would take too much. One large-scale site launches a banner on every page, for IE6 users, declaring that they should upgrade their browser or the site will no longer support it in 3 months. Another follows suit. Pretty soon, enough home users are persuaded to upgrade, and enough employees, disgruntled at not being able to check their eBay auctions or Facebook profile at work, pester their employers into upgrading.

The main problem here is one of competition. Putting a banner on your site claiming that you no longer support a browser used by a third of your customers will no doubt send a large proportion of your customers to another site. No large site is going to want to commit commercial suicide like that, because the amount of money they would lose in the short term would outweigh the amount of money they waste on IE6-specific development in the long term.

Instead, the task should be put to the non-commercial websites. Social sites like or online tools like Google Documents. The problem here is that while the sites aren't actively selling things, they do benefit from revenue brought in by large amounts of traffic, and certainly wouldn't want to take a hit in the number of visitors. I don't believe that the immediate loss of a proportion of traffic, especially from sites that are visited by those with a higher average level of technical awareness (and therefore less likely to be using IE6), would be that great, so I think it is a feasible idea. Digg will still be popular after dropping IE6. Facebook would still be visited by millions using IE7 and other browsers (and in fact, maybe more work would actually get done at work if people couldn't pointlessly update their status every 5 minutes while there).

Supposing one or more larger sites would actually agree to act for the greater good and commit to the outlawing of IE6, how should it be done? The idea would be to gently encourage the user to upgrade, rather than tell the user how stupid he or she is by not using a modern browser. People will respond far better if they think they are upgrading in order to get more out of their favourite site, rather than if they are insulted into upgrading. With that in mind, it could be beneficial to apply IE6-only drawbacks to using a particular site. Perhaps an eBay listing would have fewer pictures and no AJAXy interface in IE6, or perhaps the BBC would be unable to show more advanced, prettier interface elements. Whatever the case, users should be given a carrot and not a stick.

We need to start somewhere, at some point in time, to resolve to rid the world of IE6 for good. Not because it's the root of all evil, or because Microsoft sucks and should die, but because it's genuinely sucking up millions of hours of extra development time and holding back some really creative development techniques. We've already ganged together on the whole to create some fantastic things on the Internet. Wikipedia is a completely user-created free encyclopedia, as an example. Almost everybody in web design dislikes having to create special styles or rules for IE6, yet we seem to just accept that we're powerless to do anything about it, but that's just not the case. We should be putting on the pressure to get rid of an 8-year-old browsing relic. Are you still using the computer you bought in 2001? Would it even work nowadays, with today's Internet? It's about time we pressed a bit harder for change, and then get really creative with the web.


Gef said...

Some clever soul needs to create a virus that takes it out completely.

Or perhaps we start a rumour that one exists, allowing hackers to view everything you do while using it.

Make some lazy network admin's pay.

Anonymous said...

Some of the remaining IE6 users are there because they are running cracked/pirated copies of Windows XP with a broken update.

Facebook would be a good one to take up the challenge to entice users to update to IE7 though....

fw190a8 said...

Actually that's now the case with Facebook. It looks awful in IE6 and they recommend users update! Also, people can use Windows Update to get IE7 even with a cracked version of Windows, as far as I understand, although I guess some people who do that will have Windows Update turned off altogether.

adrin said...
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eBay tools of eBay software offers said...
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