Govt depts in no rush to upgrade from IE6

Former e-government minister Tom Watson has tabled a string of Parliamentary Questions, asking various government departments what plans they have to upgrade their default web browser from Internet Explorer v6. The answers are starting to come in, and they aren’t pretty.

… no plans to change …
… in the process of reviewing the options…  no decision as to which web browser the Department will update to or when any update might take place …
… currently reviewing our options …
… the upgrade to IE is planned to be completed prior to Microsoft ceasing to support IE6 …

But the most depressing response so far comes from the Ministry of Defence:

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) is currently implementing the Defence Information Infrastructure (Future) (DII(F)). DII(F) will, once delivered in full, incorporate around 140,000 terminals supporting some 300,000 users at over 2,000 defence sites worldwide, including on ships and deployed operations. DII currently uses Internet Explorer 6 and at the current time does not have a requirement to move to an updated version.

So maybe it’s worth running through precisely why it’s such a bad thing that government departments aren’t being systematically moved off IE6. It’s partly technical, partly design – but mostly, I think, it’s the symbolism of departments refusing to move forward.
On the technical front, IE6 has security holes that just aren’t being fixed. Analysts Secunia say there have been 10 security alerts in the last year; and that there are 21 unresolved problems. Now to be honest, day-to-day, this probably doesn’t amount to much more than a theoretical risk, but it’s a risk nonetheless.
It’s also slow: IE8 is twice as fast at running Javascript, whilst the latest versions of Firefox and Google’s Chrome are at least 4x faster. This hasn’t mattered much until the explosive growth of Ajax techniques in the last year or two. But now, a lot of the revolutionary ‘web 2.0’ sites simply aren’t usable on IE6. And with more and more stuff happening in the web browser (‘G-Cloud’?), it’s only going to get worse.
Then there’s the design issues. Most web design these days is (or should be) based entirely on CSS, Cascading Style Sheets. And frankly, IE6’s handling of CSS is appalling. Ask any web designer, they’ll tell you the same story:
From GraphJam
If you follow the W3C rules, designs will generally work perfectly (ish) first time on Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and in all fairness, IE8. Then you hold your breath, and test it in IE6… and goodness knows how it’ll come out. Things might be the wrong size, or in the wrong place, or might not be visible at all. The layout you spent weeks crafting could be a complete mess. You then have to spend ages bastardising your code, often breaking those W3C rules – and sometimes defying all logic! – to make it come out right, or near enough, in IE6. It takes time, it costs clients money, and it makes designers sad.
In reality, everyone in the industry knows this. We’ve been living with it for long enough, and we’ve all got our various workarounds. We factor the IE6 delay into our timescales. We know not to be too ambitious sometimes, ‘because it’ll never work in IE6’.
But the reason it’s such a sore point for us government hangers-on is that IE7 (released in October 2006) is free of charge, and Microsoft’s formally recommended course of action is to upgrade. Dammit, that’s what HM Government itself tells people to do. Yet departments are quite happily burying their heads in the sand – ignoring the sound technical, financial and qualitative reasons for upgrading.
They think doing nothing is the safe option. They’re wrong.

13 thoughts on “Govt depts in no rush to upgrade from IE6”

  1. Do we get at least a partial thumbs-up? We’re getting there, at least; here in Moscow we’re gearing up for the big roll-out, in September, of our new Vista-based IT, to replace the ageing NT system. IE8, here I come …

  2. James: you may be the only person on the planet celebrating the prospect of moving ‘up’ to Vista. 🙂
    Alex: I’m a little wary on the YouTube story, as let’s be honest, Google now have a direct interest in getting people to rethink their choice of browser. But certainly, we’re starting to see more and more sites saying ‘you know what, it’s your problem, not ours.’ I mused about HMG doing likewise a year ago; and I wasn’t entirely kidding.

  3. Perhaps if web designers stopped making allowances in their code for IE6 then it would become even more unusable and people/companies/organisations would be forced to abandon it.
    I know that the accepted procedure in the past has been to make a website as backwardly compatible as possible, and to construct it so that all browsers are able to parse it (within reason), but maybe this is no longer necessary. After all, how difficult is it to install a current web browser?

  4. It’s customary during discussions about IE6 for someone to point out that it’s all well and good talking about withdrawing support, but that a large chunk of non-upgraders are stuck behind a corporate policy where intranet applications have been designed solely for IE6 – and there are no funds to ensure those apps get tested with other browsers.
    And this time that person is me 😉
    I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying. And perhaps these government departments have to support old applications too.

  5. OK, so let’s dump our old browser with known flaws for a shiny new one with unknown flaws so that some geeks can write overly complex and inaccessible Javascript. Hurrah for progress!

  6. @GetReal: It’s not so much about flaws but about standards. Microsoft always wanted the web to work its way and because IE was so dominant it was able to achieve that. Now that there is more browser competition Microsoft has become much more W3C compliant with IE8.
    @Stuart: I understand your dilemma. I don’t know what the answer is other than systematic pressure and, of course, education. I’ve never believed the “no funds” argument; it’s just that IT is generally given such a low priority that funds are diverted elsewhere.

  7. @6tricky9: Heh, “no funds” is certainly a euphemism where I’m currently employed: record profits last year but there’s a pay freeze for the lucky ones and redundancy for everyone else.

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