Lately there have been a few high-profile websites (notably YouTube and Facebook) publicly announcing there intention to cease support for Microsoft’s stalwart web browser Internet Explorer 6.
Many a web designer/developer will have whooped with joy when these news stories broke. Does this finally mean we can stop worrying about this troublesome piece of software?
Firstly a bit of background for the blissfully ignorant. Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) was released to the world in 2001 and was a solid step forward from Microsoft’s previous offering – IE5.5. It soon became pretty much the default browsing application settling in at over 90% usage. Some say this is when Microsoft became complacent; that they rested on their laurels and did nothing with their browser other than release sporadic and infrequent updates. During this time the web standards movement was gathering pace and, with the release of Mozilla’s Firefox in 2004, users with enough knowledge of browser technology found that they had a decent alternative to IE6. Additionally, developers found they now had a browser that behaved a little more consistently, especially when using CSS-based layout techniques which were gaining in popularity over and above the table-based methods previously used.
Firefox slowly chewed into IE’s market and standard-based design soon became the preferred method for building sites. Microsoft finally reacted to their decreasing browser share by releasing Internet Explorer 7 in 2006. Again, this was a solid step forward from the previous incarnation, addressing many of the bugs and ill-implemented standards of IE6. However there was still a problem. With IE6 being the default (especially for large corporations) for so long, websites and in particular Intranets had become “designed for IE6”. Upgrading to IE7 would “break the web” for these users. Of course it wasn’t IE7 (or any other browser) that was broken, it was the methods used to create a site that worked perfectly in IE6 that were broken. To fix these sites and Intranets would be costly, especially for the larger corporations. There were also the home users who, as far as they were concerned, believed the little “e” on the desktop was the Internet. so IE6 didn’t simply disappear overnight – and as long as it had a sizeable chunk of the browser pie, designers and developers couldn’t ignore it.
So with IE6’s market share shrinking into single figure percentages, is now the time for more web site owners to join YouTube and Facebook and drop support for this problematic browser? Well the argument is compelling – development costs would be reduced as time spent cross-browser testing would be massively reduced. Also, when you add to or edit anything on a site, you wouldn’t need to worry as much that what you have done will break in IE6. It seems like a no-brainer, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Firstly we need to define what we mean by “support”. Are we going to deliver a message to IE6 users telling them that they need to upgrade their browser to see a particular site or are we going to deliver a simplified version of the site to them, giving them access to all the content but without the glitter. I believe the latter is really the only way forward.
It’s quite simple to set-up a catch-all universal stylesheet that we can deliver to IE6 users (plus potentially other ill-behaved/old browsers) and I think this is the way Dusted will go when we decide to not plough so much effort into getting as close to a comparable experience in IE6. This stylesheet would work for all websites, so would have to dilute any differentiating design in terms of the site’s brand, in effect, rendering every site that uses it in a similar way. What the end-user will get is access to all the content. This has got to be better than the alternative which is to hide the site completely.
If you choose to hide the site completely, simply offering a short message saying that this browser is not supported by this site – please upgrade your software, you would be missing the point. The fact that this end-user hasn’t upgraded yet is highly unlikely to be down to a lack of care on their part. It’s more likely to be for one of the reasons discussed above, i.e. no control over software or no knowledge of what a browser really is. Therefore it would be unfair, or even discriminatory to deny these users access to your site. That’s why I think movements such as ie6update are flawed at best (misleading at worst) although the site isn’t hidden from IE6 users – but does pretend to act as a system prompt. However I quite like “Hey IT” as this is at least targeting the right audience – the IT department, and is purely a campaign based on awareness.
As always, there are some exceptions to my preference of IE6 “support”. At Dusted, where we are chiefly involved in content-rich sites, the universal stylesheet approach works well. However if you are a developer of a web application, support in this way probably isn’t support at all as the main point of your site is its functionality, not the content. This is probably why 37signals, creators of Basecamp, have decided to drop support for IE6 completely.
The day will come when IE6 will no longer be a factor when building websites, but right now we aren’t quite there – nearly, but not quite.
EDIT: It seems that this post was timely as a new movement has just enter the fray – IE6 No More. This one has some serious backing from pretty big players such as Weebly, Posterous and Disqus. This new initiative is pretty much identical to ie6update, if a little less mischievous, offering a call-to-action that is a little less designed to look like an actual system prompt. However, as I explained above, I still cannot fully support an initiative like this. There’s nothing wrong with gently prompting someone that their experience may well be degraded by using IE6, but to err towards the misleading and tell them what software they should be using just feels immoral to me.