Should HMG support IE6?

I’m on the brink of starting another coding project – a blogging initiative on behalf of another central government department, which I won’t name just yet. And I know how it’s going to turn out, because it always turns out the same.

Many a true word, as they say, spoken in jest. But the reality is, most coding jobs would take a fraction of the time if we didn’t feel obliged to support IE6.
I mention this because today, 27 August 2008, is the 7th birthday of Internet Explorer v6. Seven years, people. Yet the latest data from Hitslink shows IE6 still has a market share in excess of 25% – despite the upgrade to v7 being free, despite the availability of better competitors, despite the lack of ongoing support from Microsoft itself.
But there are rumblings in the industry. Apple’s MobileMe service announced back in June that users would need to be using Internet Explorer v7 (the first major service to do so, according to 37signals). Then, 37signals themselves announced that their entire product line – including the well-known project management tool, Basecamp – would stop supporting IE6 as from this month. They wrote:

Continued support of IE 6 means that we can’t optimize our interfaces or provide an enhanced customer experience in our apps. Supporting IE 6 means slower progress, less progress, and, in some places, no progress. We want to make sure the experience is the best it can be for the vast majority of our customers, and continuing to support IE 6 holds us back.

It’s an even more compelling case when we’re talking about taxpayers’ money. Is it right for a government web project to cost (wild guess) 20% more than necessary, just because some of its potential users can’t be bothered doing a free upgrade – which, since 93.2% of UK internet connections are now broadband, most of them at speeds of 2Mbps or higher (according to the latest ONS data), should take a couple of minutes, at most?
It wouldn’t be difficult for sites to do a quick browser detection, then offer links to download pages for IE7 and some other alternatives you might want to consider (Firefox, Safari, Opera, etc). It’s in everyone’s interests, not least Microsoft’s, to make more people upgrade. We’d be open to allegations of ‘nanny state’… but I wonder if the ‘public finances’ argument would win out?

14 thoughts on “Should HMG support IE6?”

  1. I’m on a DH machine now and am forced to use IE6. They’re locked down heavily so it’s impossible for us to upgrade to IE7, we’d need ‘someone’ to do it for us, en-masse I guess. Someone said they thought it was just such a massive upgrade, affecting thousands of computers all at once, that makes it a huge undertaking. I have no idea why we’re still using it when IE7 has been out for such a long time, and IE8 is available to developers. Still, it pales in comparison when you consider we also have to use Lotus Notes, and not even the latest version of THAT! 🙁

  2. Amen – there’s also the issue of which desktop browser government department should now be using. I suspect the argument would be that migrating to another browser (even IE7) would introduce quite a bit of cost as in-house applications built for IE5 and 6 would need to be retested and potentially fixed to remove nasty hacks etc etc.
    Having seen both sides of the fence, what I think would make a difference would be for government clients to start accept that web applications won’t look quite as good on this out of date browser. With conditional comments and semantic markup, you can make something which presents the content in a bare bones, usable way in IE6 (just like you would make something which works with styles turned off for a text-based browser). But where we’re wasting effort is in forcing agencies to make sites look the *same* in IE6 as they do in standards-compatible browsers (PNG transparency, margin/padding, max-width, fixed positioning etc).
    That’s probably a bit of a pipe-dream, but given the pace of adoption in large corporate organisations, I can’t see the 25% evaporating any time soon. We need to find a way to make support for it more manageable.
    p.s. Worth contributing your views to COI as they develop their minimum browser specification guidlines for government websites?

  3. @Steph In the spirit of the Power Of Information, I’m happy for COI to come to where the debate is already happening… 🙂

  4. I still have IE6 on my two computers. This is not so much laziness, as the fact I never ever use IE so have never needed to bother upgrading.
    I agree with Steph – all the websites I have been involved in probably look a tiny bit different in IE6/7/whatever, but will all be perfectly usable; I don’t really spend any time working specifically for any particular browser any more, which is pleasing.
    I disapprove of browser detection – it’s not IMO ever up to you to dictate what browser your user is using, no matter what it is (especially given the fact they might well not have any choice as already mentioned, but even if that weren’t true). I can’t possibly see what you’d create that would require IE7 – sure, IE6 might not be as pretty, but it’d still work! Or at least, you’d have to be going out of your way for it to not, something I sadly see people still doing quite a bit…

  5. Is seven years really that long? Sure, it’s a lifetime to those of us who install new versions of software all the time, but take a step back and look at the rest of the world.
    How would we feel if petrol companies changed their fuel so that cars over seven years stopped working? Or if TV companies required you to upgarde your TV after seven years (indeed, think how controversial the once in a lifetime digital switchover is for many people)? Of if your books self-destructed after seven years?
    If you view your computer like other consumer durables – something you get and use till it wears out – there’s nothing particularly unreasonable about still having IE6.
    Why should you have to learn about new software versions and upgrading and worry about such thinks just to join in the internet with the geeks?
    (OK, I admit – I’m not fully convinced by this argument, but I think it has a lot of merit, and it is important to remember what dealing with computers is like for the bulk of the population, particuarly when we’re talking about government services.)

  6. Mark’s examples are interesting. We did change cars’ fuel so that older ones would stop working, in the shift from 4-star to unleaded. And the ‘digital switchover’ comes hot on the heels of the Channel 5 Retuning; and the demise of Sky’s analogue satellite service.
    I’m not convinced hardware counts as a ‘consumer durable’ (if there still is such a thing?); but software certainly isn’t. Upgrades and patches aren’t just for the geeks wanting cutting-edge functionality. We demand people keep their virus protection updated, and that’s before we think about Windows Update etc.
    Of course, I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here, to some extent. But I genuinely wonder if the ‘inclusivity at all costs’ principle applies when the cost implication (for the end user) is zero.

  7. I think that HMG has no real choice but to support IE6 – as someone above pointed out DH are still using IE6 – ONS are as well (we can’t even get IE7 for development and testing our own websites). If a large amount of in-government users are stuck on IE6, I can’t really see HMG moving away from it any time soon.
    Its bad enough having zip files on your own website that you can’t download, because that file type is blocked from your internet access – building sites that can’t be used in house sounds like a definite problem.

  8. I’m not sure there’s any possible argument for not being able to develop and test from within virtual machines.
    Standardised desktops are important for corporate management of IT, but that standard has to enable the users to do their job, otherwise its utterly redundant.

  9. Treat the web as real life; would the government be able to get away with denying access to any service, anywhere, on any grounds of accessibility? No, they certainly would not, ergo, that should translate onto the web.

  10. In the main (HMG excluded) it takes minutes to upgrade from IE6 to 7 as opposed to the hours it takes developers to work around IE6 flaws.
    I say write to web standards and sod MS. A long time ago developers should have stuck to standards given up on hacks and educated users that a site looked cr*p because MS weren’t implementing said standards correctly.
    Could you imagine an electrical industry that didn’t work to standards. For a lot of industries they couldn’t function without standards so why should the web be any different. Better stop before I go off on one. 🙂

  11. I’m not usually a web standards crusader. But Richard hits the nail on the head here. Someone is paying for IE’s lack of standards compliance. It’s either the designers, spending hours battling with IE’s quirks; or it’s the IT systems managers, doing the upgrades. If we think we’re saving ourselves the money by not upgrading, we’re kidding ourselves.

  12. I too am stuck on IE6 at work due to this being part of our standard install at my office.
    Our IT department has standard testing procedures and timelines for software role outs however these are often driven by business needs as they should be.
    This makes me wonder that if more websites did drop support for IE 6 or any out of date web browser for that matter it would make the business case for upgrading software internally stronger.
    Lets face it no IT department is going to upgrade something that isn’t broken without a very good reason. Maybe this is an area that needs to be addressed by the standards body laying out timelines for when support for certain tech should be dropped.
    So rather then just layout HTML 5 their should be some agreed timelines along with that. So web browser’s should support HTML 5 by X years and support will be dropped for HTML 4.5 by X. If developers on the whole did this it would then be factored into an organisations planning. Just an idea

  13. Stumbled across this post whilst looking for any news on whether IE6 support might being to be phased out across Government websites. I notice the COI browser testing guidelines indicate that any browser with a share over 2% should be tested for… Is this really practical?
    Would be interesting for an update on this article given the recent high (negative) publicity that IE6 has had – Google dropping support, and the Dept of Health recommending an upgrade to IE7 as soon as possible.

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