Internet Explorer 6 in its heyday was a great browser. It raised the bar so high, it stood alone; the other browsers languished in its wake. It had the backing of Microsoft to the tune of $100 million a year in the late 1990’s. IE6 became the darling of enterprise website development using it as the standard to which they would develop. IE hit a peak usage share of around 95% during 2002, 2003. But that is yesterday’s technology, it is time to move on.
IE has implemented some great features through the years. It was the first major browser to support Cascading Style Sheets. It later had innovations like the creation of the XMLHttpRequest (the communications mechanism for most all things AJAX), innerHTML, iFrames and the favicon. All of these features served to raise the bar, making the user experience richer. But as great as those features were, they also created a stagnation because IE6 won the browser war and no longer needed to innovate to stay on top. Internet Explorer was the de facto standard and no new versions were released for 5 years. In internet terms, that is a very long time!
New Versions of IE
Microsoft has gotten back into the game. Well, frankly, they started putting out new releases about 4 years ago when Firefox started taking IE’s market share. Since then, they have made fairly steady progress. And although many people approach their commitment with reservation, they have been busy adding an array of features. They clearly want to turn around the direction of that slide in market share.
Version 7 finally introduced a number of improvements; first on my list being the bug fixes in the rendering engine. PNG alpha channels were brought in. CSS improvements, RSS feeds, etc. The list is long but predominantly this was a long overdue game of catch-up to the other browsers.
Version 8 started getting a bit smarter. We finally get to see integrated developer tools with a logger… How long had it been? Compatibility views helped a developer code and test in different IE versions. CSS 2.1, better performance, private browsing, and it finally fixed the memory leaks. All in all, the browser has made good progress.
Where is Microsoft going with version 9? A more accommodating approach to the industry ain’t bad. Microsoft “gets it” on standards with a compliance rating of 95% to the ACID standard. IE9 is offering support for HTML5, CSS3 Canvas, and SVG as well as a GPU powered system for blazing fast graphics rendering.
Other Great Browsers Too
Today, HTML5 is taking the web industry like wild fire. HTML5 offers powerful new elements like audio, video, canvas, enabling the rich media experience. All the browsers are trying to claim the performance crown. CSS3 is allowing designers the flexibility they didn’t have in the stagnated browsers. Features as simple as rounded corners or as astonishing as animations make a great impact on interactivity. These new features can’t be realized by supporting the past.
Who’s Running IE6
It would be nice if it were just Grandma and Grandpa running on IE6, but you would be surprised at how tech savvy the Grandparents can be when it comes to getting email and pictures of their grandkids. Yes, many have the latest release on their systems already! Sadly, we have to look into a couple of other areas that are not as nice a prospect – business and government. In both cases, you find bureaucracies and bean counters.
It comes down to the cost of an upgrade. Many corporations have their security in place. Depending on the company, the admin team might be able to move slow or fast. There could a dozen systems to modify or tens of thousands. And, given the cost of an upgrade, the bean counters are going to want to have their say.
Governments can even be more problematic. Oddly, some governments could care less about spending the money, but trying to upgrade a browser can actually be a political nightmare. The UK government is choosing not to upgrade and sticking with IE6.
Companies Stopping Support
Google has dropped support for IE6. Facebook has dropped support for IE6. Was this just a haphazard decision? No. They have made the decision because it makes better sense for them. This decision to stop boils down to revenue derived from IE6 users versus the cost to support IE6. One thing is for sure, IE6 has been around for a long time with people slow to migrate to its successors. But companies might be turning that corner. Mike Wilcox notes we have finally seen a drop in market share significant enough that companies can drop support without as much fear.
Costing You Money
What was once the darling of enterprise today is costing you money. IE6 is slowing down development. Time has to be taken to ensure that a web application works in each browser. Often when quickly running the code on the latest versions of other browsers a web page displays identically, or near identically. In IE6 you might find that application looks wrong or just plain doesn’t function. Then the extra time needed to fix that problem and make sure you don’t break the other browsers while you are doing it is costing more money.
Regardless of the developer spending the time fixing those problems, you have a quality assurance team that has to run additional tests on this browser. Depending on how automated a test environment you have, this can be harsh. Any failures that occur mean going back to the developer. So, we are back to costing even more money.
And if your solution is simply to outsource the problem you might want to note that company might just charge an extra fee to support IE6.
What to Do
Once you have made your decision to do away with IE6, the rest is fairly easy. Above all, you still offer your users a good experience. Offering a screen with a nasty message stating we don’t support IE6 may be personally satisfying for the web developer that has been plagued with IE6 support problems, but a better solution is to play nice. Offer an upgrade link to the latest Internet Explorer browser. You might offer other solutions too, like Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera. For those sticking with IE6, there is even a plugin called Google ChromeFrame that allows users who can’t upgrade to use WebKit as a rendering engine.
Or, you might continue to support IE6 in a more minimalistic fashion. Aesthetic accommodations are not as important, but functional accommodations are. In other words, don’t concentrate on how pretty it looks, just make sure that the user can accomplish his task in IE6.
Web sites, whether they support a small business, large corporations or governments have a great reason to stop supporting IE6: It will save money. The decision makers must consider the amount of time necessary to code, test, then recode for IE6, and the lost productivity when a bug gets past to production. In place of IE6 support, an upgrade panel should be offered. You can suggest new versions of Internet Explorer, feature-enabling plugins like ChromeFrame, or you can offer alternative browsers like Firefox, Chrome, Safari or Opera.
Your bottom line measurement is revenue. How much revenue do IE6 users represent? Do they make up less then 5% of your user base? Then help them and yourself by removing the shackles that are holding them back. Jump into a new, more accommodating user experience. Users deserve better. Help your users experience today’s feature rich browsers and leave yesterday’s outdated success behind.