Internet Explorer v6 is the bane of any web developer’s life. You can build a web page, and it’ll look beautiful in every other browser – but then you look at it in IE6, and it’s a mess. Without getting too technical, IE6 interprets the web’s CSS design code in ways which are irrational, unexpected, illogical and sometimes just plain wrong. If it could simply be wiped off the face of the internet, the web developer’s job would be much easier – and frankly, projects would be cheaper, and prettier too.
Microsoft has never made a secret of its desire to move people to more recent versions; but now, with IE6 approaching its tenth birthday – although strictly its birthday isn’t until late August – and IE9’s release imminent, they’ve started a proactive campaign to shame people into upgrading. IE6Countdown.com displays a map showing percentage market share for IE6 worldwide; and invites you to join its campaign ‘to get Internet Explorer 6 to 1%.’ In all likelihood, Microsoft is seeing this as an opportunity to sell upgrades to Windows 7 – but that doesn’t undermine the validity of the message.
I know some of the straggling government departments have finally upgraded in recent months; so, it’s over to you, gang. Which departments are still on IE6… despite Microsoft’s own advice, and indeed, the advice of government’s own IT security campaign?
I’ve happily signed the e-petition on the Downing Street website calling on the Prime Minister to ‘encourage government departments to upgrade away from Internet Explorer 6.’
I’ve written on this subject before; and I know the huge headache it would be to alter in-house applications built for IE6 alone (although that’s another story altogether).
I note the petitioner’s failure to mention the government-backed Get Safe Online initiative, which explicitly recommends upgrading. So when he says ‘(The French and German) governments have let their populations know that an upgrade will keep them safer online. We should follow them.’ – I know he’s wrong. And I’m not sure I buy his suggestion that ‘When the UK government does this, most of Europe will follow. That will create some pressure on the US to do so too.’
But that’s all beside the point. If we can use this petition as some kind of leverage, I’m prepared to overlook its deficiencies. And with nearly 5,000 signatures in a couple of days, and front-page coverage from the BBC, we have a platform on which to build.
The latest browser market share numbers show that finally, IE6 has been deposed as the world’s #1 browser. And in the last few days, Google has announced that its Apps will be phasing out IE6 support, becoming the latest big name to say enough is enough.
It’s time to put IE6 out of our misery. Sign the petition.
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.
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:
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.
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?
I used to get really excited about the release of new versions of the big web browsers. These days the overwhelming emotion is worry, bordering on panic. What is it going to do with the HTML I lovingly crafted to work with its predecessor?
I held my breath this morning as I fired up the first beta version of Internet Explorer v8 for the first time. And whilst there’s nothing catastrophic to report, I’m surprised how may things are ‘a few pixels out’, even things you never thought could be risky. If you’re reading this on the puffbox.com site in IE8, for example, you’ll see the ‘find’ button is out of line with the search box, and there’s an unexpected gap between the header and navigation strip. The Wales Office site adds a few (inactive?) horizontal scrollbars to various DIVs.
There’s been a lot of talk about Microsoft’s Damascene conversion to web standards: effectively they’re saying ‘no really, this time we mean it.’ And Ray Ozzie appears to be thinking and talking long-term:
On one hand, there are literally billions of Web pages designed to render on previous browser versions, including many sites that are no longer actively managed. On the other hand, there is a concrete benefit to Web designers if all vendors give priority to interoperability around commonly accepted standards as they evolve. After weighing these very legitimate concerns, we have decided to give top priority to support for these new Web standards.
In other words, standards-compliance over legacy support. That’s the message web designers want to hear. As I’ve written before, I’m convinced the bulk of HTML coding effort is spent making the same design work identically across all browsers. An across-the-board commitment to universal standards would end that waste of our time, and clients’ money.
So why am I looking at pages which are fine in Firefox, fine in Opera, fine in Safari, fine in Konqueror… but a bit off in the new standards-compliant, ACID2-passing IE8? (No browser hacks, before anyone asks.) Please, please, let this just be ‘a beta thing’.