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Internet Explorer 6 Don’t hate, Educate.

by Stuart Grant

Today’s browser market has become a fast paced and competitive world with focus on standards compliance, rendering, load times, and customisation. Each browser has its own unique selling points be it stability, development extensions, or just how it feels.  It is not uncommon knowledge that Internet Explorer 6 is the elephant in the room and safe to say that it is a large thorn in the side of any web developer. Too often extra time has to be spent hacking layouts and functions in order to satisfy this old fashioned browser.

When first released in August 2001 Internet Explorer 6 was shipped with Windows XP and it became the standard internet browser for the modern user at the time. Since then the internet has evolved dramatically and with the web 2.0 buzz maturing we are only really beginning to unlock the newest possibilities of what the internet holds. To stay in the running we have to grow and adapt, we have to evolve. As the strong survive and grow more powerful,  the weak, old and sick are naturally culled from the herd. But it is not all about surviving the internet, it’s about enjoying it too.

So what’s next? Upgrade of course, but if only it was that easy. You visit the website, you download the browser, install and enjoy? If only; the real problem is that corporate users can be heavily restricted by the overlords of technical support. It’s not only that, upgrading Opera requires a fresh install for each update, Safari a system update…. and IE6 is like a patchwork quilt. FireFox and Google Chrome on the other hand automatically update, and take only moments to do so.

So why not have technical support upgrade us all to a nice friendly FireFox or Chrome? When IE6 established its foothold in the browser market, it was around the same time that most businesses decided they required Intranets and systems that would help improve client and employee communication. At the time there was only one standard, and that was met by custom built websites that depended on the unique quirkiness of IE6.  

Since 1994 cumulative web standards have evolved and clear guidelines for a working base for HTML, CSS and accessibility are now widely accepted and in place. Today’s modern browsers are evolving with ever increasing functionality, each one different in its own rendering mode, customisable features and/or extensibility; but fundamentally following the same guidelines for the best and most compliant user experience possible. IE6 falls short on these benchmarks and fails to recognise certain standards not to mention its near zero flexibility for customisation. IE6 specific sites have a large capacity to fail or render ‘incorrectly’ when viewed in most recent and current browsers.
Nowadays IE version specific hacks are common and often enough a clients demand for state of the art technology also includes making it work for this classic browser. Any experienced developer will agree that Internet Explorer 6 is consistent with one thing, its inconsistencies. HasLayout, margin bugs , z-indexing, relative positioning, transparent pngs, quirks-mode, its time to move forward. However I am not here to discuss the short comings of IE6, too much time is spent on fixing these bugs and building work arounds. The same development time could be used to produce more finely tuned systems and help progress the web as oppose to dragging around the extra weight. The internet is still a relatively new technology and something has to be done to streamline and standardise its base development. And for this to happen, we need to lift the burden of IE6.

The movement has already begun to bring down Internet Explorer 6. In Norway several websites use JavaScript to inform the user that the browser they are using is out of date. An April Fools prank to save IE6 was released, Facebook too informs users to upgrade. There are more, less subtle, methods and communities that would like to see the demise of IE6 but it is becoming the more the norm to warn users that they are using insecure and out of date software and politely recommend a browser upgrade.

The web development community is up in arms against not just IE6 but Microsoft too; any released update, amend or fix is swiftly met with the utmost hostility and belligerence. Not to my surprise, as the pattern that appears when handling security flaws is: don’t fix it, remove it (as they did with CSS background images on release of Outlook 2007). Microsoft may be driving the bus to the edge of the cliff much to the protest of the passengers but now is the time to put away the torches and pitchforks and turn to educating clients, users and corporations.

Despite this Microsoft have already taken a step in the right direction with the release of Internet Explorer 8. Its focus is on a powerful browser that conforms to today web standards, a long overdue and welcome change. However they have also undertaken measures to stop themselves from ‘breaking the internet’. By adding a backwards compatibility mode, that is  user controlled, they have allowed the user to push a button that will render the website they are viewing back to an older version of the Internet Explorer. Not the best idea I think (I do not agree with the compatibility switch or ‘fix internet’ button and feel that the meta description line of code is the most subtle way of ironing out the holes in the code) but a fail safe from their point of view for all of these older technologies relying on an 8 year old browser. Technologies that could cost tens to hundreds of thousands of pounds to rebuild or upgrade. 

But what happens in another 8 years when Microsoft bring out another browser? How far back will they allow us to see? and who will foot the bill for replacing and updating these archaic systems? It certainly won’t be Microsoft as they are protecting their own investments. Will it be the major corporation? In times of such financial turmoil it you would think it unlikely that these businesses would want to spend the money on an upgrade… or is it? With the increasing reliance on social media technology users are engaging in new and exciting ways on-line. Now is the time to move forward. Now is the time to upgrade. It is an exciting time, wikis, blogs, custom interfaces, user centric networks and Intranets increasing work flow and efficiency,  saving companies time and money in the long run.  Finance calculator widgets and customisable dashboard interfaces and systems, RSS feeds and report builders… the list goes on, and the potential is there for far greater things.

At the time of writing IE6 is sitting at just over 17.5% of the browser market share but is gradually dropping. However this is still a very large number of users and clients dependent on certain markets of users that will be reliant on this. In spite off these statistics development for the lowest common denominator is paramount however there is a line. It is up to people like myself and other front end developers to know where that line is and to stop supporting IE6 and despite any number of statistics this time will be a shot in the dark. However its up to all of us to help progress web development by educating.

Ultimately the problem is that the remaining users are locked in, are not aware of the possibility to upgrade or there are some poeple out there who are happy how they are with the browser they use. With the boom in social networking websites and the increased use of heavier code for web applications, it takes modern equipment to fight in modern warfare. And with clients expecting HD quality on VHS technology, the redu
ndancy factor increases. Just as video tapes are now things you find in old boxes and cupboards, web browsers have moved forward too.  You can still watch your videos but you are missing out on the superior experience.

2 Responses to Internet Explorer 6 Don’t hate, Educate.

  1. By Alex Mcvitie on May 12, 2009 at 1:24 am

    Here, HERE! “As the strong survive and grow more powerful, the weak, old and sick are naturally culled from the herd. But it is not all about surviving the internet, it’s about enjoying it too.” that pretty much summed it up for me m8, I think it all comes down to two thing, either you deny access to your web site, if they use IE6 subsequently loosing potential clients / viewers / readers, or suggest an upgrade, but as you said … most people are happy with what they have!?
    …I Battle Continues!

  2. By Tim Cowlishaw on May 12, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    You make a good point, Stu – IE6 is an antiquated, backward bit of software, and as developers, we should be pushing adoption of more appropriate solutions among users.
    I think that finding a strategy to do this, however, is pretty tricky, and depends a lot on context – the target audience and functionality of the software you’re working on, primarily.
    In general, i’d advocate offering a degraded, but functional experience for IE6 users, with some sort of visible note explaining this – That way you offer incentives to upgrade and education on the benefits of using a modern browser, rather than shutting IE6 users (many of whom may well be unaware of the issues with their browser) out completely. Think of it as ‘progressive enhancement’ but for browsers as a whole, rather than just javascript.
    However, this definitely isn’t a magic bullet, i can think of several situations where this isn’t going to work. Apps that are used behind the firewall need to work on whatever browser a company has installed, and as so many institutions are reliant on strange old ‘built for IE’ CRM systems and the like, this may well be IE6.
    Similarly, I can see an argument for maintaining IE6 support in social apps for the time being. To illustrate, even as a Firefox user, if Facebook did not support IE6 at all, i’d be significantly disincentivised to use it, as ~17% of my friends (assuming thebrowser choice of my friends maps to the global market share of IE6) would be left out, leading to less value for me.
    However, this leaves tons of opportunities where we can try and spur adoption of modern browsers, and as you say, education and incentivisation are the best ways to make this happen. Another little strategy that could work is reflecting IE support in the ratecards of companies that do web dev and design work – you get all modern browsers for one price, with an extra surcharge for basic IE6 support, and an even steeper one for full functionality in IE6? It’d mean developers time is spent more profitably, at least.