I can hear the mob down at the other end of the street. “Down with IE6! Death to IE6!”
Calls for the death of IE6 have, in certain circles, been mooted almost since it was first released. That’s because Microsoft’s browser from August 2001 was prone to crashing, it was insecure which made it a veritable virus magnet, and it didn’t even do what it was supposed to do properly: it never fully supported official web coding standards.
Along with IE5.5, Microsoft had at least 85% market share for the best part of 5 years. With this high penetration Microsoft got complacent and it took a full 6 years until it’s replacement, IE7, was launched. IE7 and now IE8 have gone a long way to righting the Redmond’s wrongs but the IE6 legacy is still being felt by web designers and developers the world over.
As a reaction to IE6 new modern, robust, stands-compliant browsers like Opera were being built. And Netscape evolved into what would become what is now the second most used browser, Firefox.
Writing HTML that renders correctly in IE6 can often require custom lines of code. This takes development time away from the project. As time passes, supporting Internet Explorer 6 has simply become a drain on resources and, some say, with some developers sticking to relatively ‘safe’ HTML to ensure an acceptable browsing experience in IE6, it has become an inhibitor to progress and development on the web.
So amazingly, as a result of the continuing popularity of IE6, and in a world full of spam, worms, viruses and other nasties, 18 percent (as of March 2009, according to Wikipedia) of web users are still surfing using a browser that’s nearly eight years old. Why is this? And why, typically, is your client one of this number? There are many reasons.
The largest proportion of IE6 users are those with no other browser on their PC at work. They generally work in larger organisations who may rely on a old but still used piece of software that is tied into IE6 (this is because IE6 itself was tied into Windows) to do invoicing, accounting or timesheet input. These organisations often tend to have IT security policies which prohibit the installation of any software, leaving the user an IE6 hostage.
Other instances could include people using old versions of Windows: Windows 2000 and NT only support IE6. Some simply do not know any better. And finally there’s the PC-novice parent who insists that even her very web-savvy son leaves her computer well alone: “Don’t touch it! It works just fine as it is, thank you. I can pick up my email and I know what all the buttons do”. If you had the guts you could choose to stop all development for IE6. But I believe for an agency like ours that serves a broad range of clients, including many public sector organisations (notorious IE6 users), support for IE6 is going to be necessary for quite some time – perhaps until its usage falls below 5%.
So what help can we offer to web designers and developers who choose to continue support IE6?
As a designer you’ll probably be developing using IE7+, Firefox, Google Chrome and Safari … oh go then, and Opera. And because you can’t generally have IE6 and IE7 installed on the same machine, the first hurdle is to find a way of checking your site in IE6 – and the secret is to start the testing early in the development process because leaving debugging until the end will cause you more grief than a sleaze-writing cabinet minister. Short of using multiple virtual machine sessions, a remote desktop connection to a legacy PC on your network still using IE6 or a visit to your mum every evening for a quick spin on her squeaky old IE6 browser, you’ll need some way of testing in IE6.
We have recently discovered a great piece of freeware called IE Tester (bit.ly/ie-tester). IE Tester is a very accurate IE emulator. In our experience you can choose to develop in any one of Firefox/Chrome/Safari/Opera and use IE Tester for checking in IE6/7/8.
Of course you can also evangelise about the benefits of upgrading to a modern browser. But blog posts on a digital agency website are essentially preaching to the converted. So please spread the word – tell your friends and family, and also the government’s Chief Information Officer. Tell them to get with the program, the program called IE8. Are we calling for the death of IE6? Not really. We tend not to have too much trouble supporting it. We seem to be quite good at balancing creativity with good clean code. We’re pragmatic about it: for most of our clients it’s still their main browser. And if we want to keep them, we need to keep IE6 and let it die a natural death.