A Bit More on Our IE6 Stance

April 6th, 2009 38 Comments

ObeyRich’s April Fools’ post from last week has generated some discussion around how we (and developers in general) handle support for Internet Explorer 6.

Most of the discussion was between G and me, and then Friend of the ‘Lab John “I used to be the Ontario Emperor” Bredehoft weighed in with his two cents. In his comment, he says:

For better or worse, the AppsLab team and many others are now choosing to leave IE6 outside of the realm of supported web browsers. While I don’t agree with that choice, I certainly understand it.

The problem with these types of discussions is that they inevitably get tangled with opinions and emotions. Rich and I have a well-documented distaste for Windows, and it’s difficult to take what we say about IE without hearing through that filter.  I’ll try to document the facts first before injecting my opinions.

Internet Explorer 6 Facts
Shortly after its release on August 27, 2001 and for several years, IE6 was the dominant browser, surpassing 95% market share at its height. Even today, more than 2,700 days after it debuted, it still commands about 18% of the market.

During those years of domination, web applications were built and tested almost exclusively on IE6 because it was the de facto standard. Many enterprise web apps never tested non-Windows/IE configurations because they just didn’t have any within their organizations.

IE6 even dominated its predecessor, IE7 for several years, primarily due to a lack of enterprise adoption of both IE7 and Vista. As a whole, the IE family, which now includes IE8, has seen its market share decline precipitously over the last 18 months, most recently falling to just under 67%, a number IE hasn’t seen since the late 90s.

By the way, market share statistics come from Net Applications. There are other calculations out there that vary slightly, but usually no more than +/- a few percentage points.

New Browser Facts
Over the last few years, and accelerating over the last year, new browsers have been coming out frequently. Obviously, Mozilla Firefox, now in its third production version, has led the charge and now controls 22% of the market.

New entrants, like Google’s Chrome released September 2, 2008, and major updates to existing browsers like Safari 4, show the willingness of users to try a new browser, even when one comes with their Windows distribution.

Chrome already commands more market share than Opera, which has been making browsers since 1996, and its market penetration is constrained by its lack of OS X and Linux versions (official Google versions anyway).

Safari, bolstered by the market share OS X has taken from Windows, has grown to more than 8%. Having a Windows version definitely helps its adoption too.

Most importantly, these new entrants all support standards that allow developers to come closer to a write-once web app, i.e. you can reasonably expect that a web app will look and behave about the same on Firefox and Chrome/Safari (both WebKit browsers).

Sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part, that’s correct.

Not so with that same web app and IEx.

Insert Opinions Here
I’ve always thought browser market share was a funny concept, considering that multiple browsers can be installed on a machine. But, having been in that situation for many years, I guess I agree that the majority of people use a single browser for most browsing, making it easy enough to make the market share leap.

Granted, Rich and I aren’t fans of Windows or IE. I like choice.

When I returned to Oracle in 2001, everyone ran IE6. I remember distinctly a chat I had in 2002 with David about Netscape 6, which we both used. Compared to IE6, Netscape 6 had a lot of great features, like tabs. I’ve been with the Gecko family ever since, jumping to Firefox permanently in 0.7.

So, I’m definitely biased against IE6.

That said, I would do more to support it if I had the resources.

There are two important pieces here: a) what is support and b) resources.

What is support?
We (AppsLab) do support IE6, in that our web apps (Connect and formerly Mix) run pretty much as designed in that browser. Some stuff looks janky, but the app does what’s expected for the most part.

Until recently, we did make changes for IE6 users to make the experience less jarring.

Why? Because as it is on the ‘tubes, IE6 usage is dropped like a stone. IE currently accounts for only 29% of Connect traffic, of which 9% is IE6. This is definitely down from August 2007, when we began.

Back then, IE traffic was much higher, closer to 40% for all IE versions, and 25% for IE6. As recently as December 2008, IE6 accounted for 14% of the traffic.

As a new app, we needed to support the most common configurations, Win+FF and Win+IE, and we did make allowances for IE6-specific behavior because a much larger contingent of user base used it. Not so anymore.

You could argue this is a chicken-egg problem, since Connect looks better in standards compliant browsers like Firefox, but you could just as easily argue that the overall trend of IE slippage has more to do with choice in browsers and more awareness that other options exist.

For example, our internal IT deploys  Firefox on new machines, and the WebKit browsers (Chrome and Safari) account for nearly as much traffic as IE6 now.

Our support for IE6 has declined as its usage has declined. You can read into that any number of ways.

Resources
This is the key driver for our IE6 stance. I have to balance investment in new features and bug fixing, just like any product manager.

I can’t spend development time on a browser that accounts for 8% (and falling) of traffic. Instead, I invest in new features and fix bugs that affect all users. Faced with non-critical bugs on the WebKit browsers vs. IE6, I would invest in Chrome/Safari first because they are growing user segments, whereas IE6 is falling.

Note that I say “non-critical”. If IE were completely borked and didn’t work, I would considering investing enough to get it back to its current state, which is pretty much working. But I’d have to take a close look at the effort required.

Despite how it might seem, we haven’t turned our backs on IE6 users completely. When we made the decision to stop fixing IE6 specific issues, we put up a message that lets users know why and where they can find other browsers, including those officially supported by our IT.

Big Finish
At the end of the day, I think we do a good enough job supporting IE6, based on our resources and our user demographics. Our support for it has adjusted as its use has declined.

Even so, we still enjoy making fun of it.


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38 Responses to “A Bit More on Our IE6 Stance”

  1. chet Says:

    first! oh wait, this isn't TDWTF.

    Should I take umbrage with this comment?

    “…even when one comes with their Windows distribution…”

    In other words, can I assume you were on the anti-trust side of things?

    As for IE6 and resources, etc, I'm on your side here. Seriously, is it that hard to make a compliant browser? With the resources, why did they choose to go against it? Just to create their own? It has to make some of their own cringe, right?

  2. Jake Says:

    Huh? You can assume I'm not a huge fan of Microsoft. I didn't/don't really follow the anti-trust suit/s, but I do agree that users should be able to uninstall IE.

    Not to defend IE6, but there weren't many standards back in the day ('01). I'd put the blame on IE7, which should do a better job of supporting standards. You could say IE7 only looks good when compared to IE6.

    I guess back in 2001, there wasn't any competition or many standards, so they slapped some paint on IE5.5 and called it 6.

  3. AmiD Says:

    I completely relate to the pains of supporting IE. My grief also extends to supporting multiple mail clients, but that rant is for another day.

    Developing resources in Connect, Twiki, or other web 2.0 tools then having to test them out in IE, Firefox, Chrome, and Netscape is maddening. Equally as disturbing are comments of “why is the spacing off?” from users devoted to IE.

    I understand sacrifice. I use Chrome for personal use and love it, but switch out to Firefox for work use because Chrome is not yet supported in all applications. I have also been adding little tags in my twikis, blogs, etc to indicate that they are best viewed using Firefox.

    In the end, the best success I have had is a slow but steady diatribe to my team and network that they should give Firefox a try. Once they do, they usually don't go back to IE. Except of course to use web conf which only works on IE. sigh.

    I dream of a day when there is a corporate standard for browsers. I am also pro-choice on the matter, so if Firefox is the standard, people are free to use Safari if they like, but only with the “no whining about it ” rule in place.

    In general, I think users are waiting for direction on a browser standard. Some are resistant to change. I plan to keep telling my contacts that “to get the best functionality from the tool (insert your favorite tool here) you should be using Firefox and here's the link to download it.”

  4. Joonas Says:

    Regarding 'write-once' and standards compliance: remember those little “Best viewed with Netscape 3″ badges in days of yore? We've come a long way.

  5. Jake Says:

    Ha, picking up on your sarcasm :)

    We should go back to plain HTML only, no CSS, no JS, nothing but HTML all day long. That would weed out some of the cruft.

    Imagine how fast that would be too.

  6. Jake Says:

    Actually, there is a corporate standard, IE6 of FF2, or at least, they are officially supported, whereas others are not.

    IMO having IT standards is where this goes wrong in the enterprise b/c the average won't switch to unsupported software, but I get what you mean. Either that or standards need to stay more current, and updates need to be pushed more frequently. It's not an easy problem to solve.

    The good news is that people are getting more savvy all the time, so this may be moot in 5 years. I hope so anyway. I'll bet IE6 will still have 5% or so of traffic then too :)

    Personal preference aside, I do like the speed of the WebKit browsers. I'm using Chromium on Ubuntu, and it's screaming fast. I can't figure out the proxy stuff, but when that comes, I'll probably switch over for a while from FF 3.1/3.5.

    So, you have issues with mail clients? I hope you mean Outlook vs. others :) I've been Outlook-free for a decade and loving it.

  7. G Says:

    “9% is IE6″
    In that case, your choice in understandable.

    http://marketshare.hitslink.com/browser-market-
    gives an 18% share to IE6. The website I am working with at the moment (broad consumer oriented, not tech) has over 37% using IE6, even higher than IE7 (27%). Firefox is about 20% (close to the survey result).
    Once IE8 goes out on automatic update, I expect IE7 to drop VERY quickly. I suspect IE6 will simply be a case of attrition over several years as people replace their computers.

  8. Jake Says:

    That explains a lot :)

    I also mention that back in 2007, our IE6 percentage was close to 25%, which is why we *had* to support it. Thankfully, it's been dropping like a stone since then, and we've been able to discontinue support.

    Hard to imagine a consumer app that has over 37% IE6 usage. You have to try pretty hard to avoid taking that IE7 Windows Update to XP, so I have to assume your users are on unpatched machines. Either that or they really hate IE7 :)

    Won't MSFT push IE7 as a mandatory soon, now that IE8 has dropped?

    I see happier times in your browser support future.

  9. chet Says:

    I know and have read you are not a big fan of Microsoft, which is perfectly understandable. But you don't necessarily have to uninstall the program to use another one right? I don't agree with every decision Microsoft has made but I always found it a bit…odd, that people would complain about them tying their browser in with their operating system. I thought Netscape (and others?) took a childish stance on complaining about the integration of IE with Windows. Why wouldn't they do it? It makes perfect sense.

    There's also the fact that Microsoft made things easier for all of us (myself included) to get to the web. I've only just begun to explore the alternates (Intrepid) and I consider myself fairly computer savvy. Maybe it's a chicken and egg discussion, I don't know. (babbling again)

  10. Jeff Waterman Says:

    Will you somehow express your (and our shared) disgust to the folks who put together our OBI. Ugh. I am stuck with IE6 – and the sad thing is – the internal apps seem to run better on IE6, while I do all my other work on FF. When will I be able to run EBS on FF and have it supported internally?

  11. Joonas Says:

    Agreed. Then I would know how to write web pages again, too!

  12. Joonas Says:

    Have you tried the IEtab extension for Firefox? I know some of our sales guys were able to run Siebel etc. with that installed, as they too preferred to use FF.

  13. John E. Bredehoft (Empoprises) Says:

    Jake, you REALLY want to use that Oracle browser again, don’t you? :)

  14. Jeff Waterman Says:

    I do have that installed — it works pretty well – that said, I still have problems with some of the self-service apps (i.e., expenses). Oy!

  15. Jake Says:

    For me, the uninstall thing is salt in a wound. Back then, space wasn't so cheap and you had to uninstall crap you were using. Beyond that, who knows what else IE and Win were doing behind my back?

    It was a Big Brother world. Sure, Win+IE made it easier to get on the Information Superhighway, but it also formed lots of bad habits among users that will never be erased.

    It's a very different world now. Competition is good.

  16. Jake Says:

    I hear you. I've mentioned several things about the OBI to GIT in the past.

    Funny story, back in the mid-90s, I worked on the original OBIs that were built for NT 4 and Win 95. That was the heyday of Netscape Communicator, and I don't even remember having IE on the OBI.

    Still, that means nothing in terms of my influence now ;)

    Anyway, EBS does run on Firefox. It's certified up to Firefox 3, I think, and I've run it on uncertified browsers like Safari 4 and on Firefox 3.6 alpha without any odd behavior.

  17. Jake Says:

    Replied to your other comment first, what problems do you have? As I said, I'm able to run EBS on FF2, 3.0, 3.5 and 3.6a pretty well. I might have hit a blip or two though that I can't recall. EBS is officially certified on 3.0 now.

  18. chet Says:

    competition isn't just good it's great! (hopefully you just visualized Tony the Tiger).

    It dumbed down computers to a lot of people, there is no doubt about it. I'm still “suffering” from it. It did allow those without CS degrees into the game which has brought forth the enormous growth of the entire industry.

    I work in the industry and I just began using another OS…that is one great thing about Ubuntu is that they have marketing themselves well and they come pre-installed on Dell (right?). I would buy one in a heartbeat (well, I think I'd rather build one now, but you know what I mean). I've always want to learn/use other OSs, but how do you choose between the 30 billion flavors?

    Completely off topic and would probably be more fun with beer involved! I gotta get to PDX.

  19. Jake Says:

    I'll reply to your Tony the Tiger with an “Oh, yeah!” Kool Aid man reference.

    And yes, Portland's many fine breweries are calling you.

  20. David Haimes Says:

    I run EBS on FF and Safari with no problems, I never switch to IE for any internal Apps apart from Webconferencing.

  21. David Haimes Says:

    I remember well chatting about Netscape 6, it was a revelation to me and I never looked back.

    Coincidently I was talking with my Mum last night as she got confused with the tabs using FF on my wife's Mac.

    Have you never seen tabs in a browser before?

    I have all those windows and they appear in the bar at the bottom.

    What version of Internet Explorer do you use at home?

    Hmmm, let me think, it's XD

    You mean XP?

    Oh yeah that's it.

    Never mind.

  22. Jeff Waterman Says:

    This is minor, but still an issue. When running Expenses in FF (with IE plug-in), you are taken to select your credit card expenses…if you have more than 10, you have to click to items 11-20…once you do that you lose the checked first ten, if you click back I lose the 11-20.

    Could be that I am the one with the problem, as it is easier just to resort to IE6.

    Love the blog and will start running EBS via FF this afternoon.

  23. Jake Says:

    Tabs were the very feature that we chatted about, and they are the reason I switched to Netscape 6. By now, tabs seem like a must-have, but they were really important to me. I've always hated window popping, dating back to the days before pop-up blockers.

    Tabs don't resonate with other people though. I tried to get my wife to use them back in Firefox 1.5, when I switched her over from IE. To this day, she won't use them. If I head up to her iMac, I'll find about 5 Firefox and 8 Safari windows open.

    It's intriguing to me why we have such different UI preferences.

    Side note: yet another reason UI is so damn hard.

  24. John E. Bredehoft (Empoprises) Says:

    FYI, I was recently checking out netbooks at the Dell website, and Ubuntu iand Windows XP are offered. As for me, I haven't been in PDX since 1987-1988 or so.

  25. John E. Bredehoft (Empoprises) Says:

    Rather than having a corporate standard for browsers – which, frankly, is what led us into this mess – it would be better for browsers themselves to comply with some external standard – then any application developed to the external standard will work, no matter which browser you use.

    Yes, I know that browsers are supposed to comply to standards today, but perhaps an independent organization could certify compliance? Or is there already a certification body doing this?

  26. John E. Bredehoft (Empoprises) Says:

    Jake, you also have the enterprise issue, where automatic pushes of new software versions are controlled internally. Frankly, that probably accounts for most of the IE6 copies that are still out there today.

  27. Mark Trapp Says:

    There isn't a body that determines UA compliance, and none of the major parties would ever agree to such a body. One thing developers and some web designers have been doing is testing for capability (rather than browser), which abstracts progressive enhancement to allow for cases when a browser eventually implements a feature. The jQuery library, for the most part, is one example of this (A List Apart article on it: http://www.alistapart.com/articles/testdriven).

    One offset of this are tools to test compatibility, which could, in theory, be used for compatibility policy. The famous example of this is the ACID test: you could always require a browser that has at least 90% on it.

  28. Jake Says:

    Hmm, that could be a side-effect of running EBS via IETab. Try it natively. If it's a bug, report it :)

    Glad you enjoy reading and thanks for commenting.

  29. Jake Says:

    Yeah I remember we got a bunch of sendmails saying not to take IE7 as an update. Although that was before the acquisitions started, so now I'm guessing we're higher in IE7 overall.

  30. Jake Says:

    Yes, return me to the days when the Information Superhighway was blinking text and spinning gifs :)

  31. Jake Says:

    Nice. Good info, I was struggling to come up with anything useful for John.

  32. Jake Says:

    Glad they're still offering it, although there were some oddities about the pricing I think vs. XP.

    It's time to come back to PDX.

  33. chet Says:

    that's funny…I referenced the Kool Aid man just today.

  34. joel garry Says:

    All your base comments are belong to… I mean the top level comments farthest to the left sometimes get truncated on the left side, including this box I'm typing into. I use 4 different browsers at least, so don't talk to me about switching when I'm stuck somewhere with ie6, it's just not my choice to make.

    As far as tabs, I seem to like them sometimes and not others, I'm not sure why. With multiple windows, I do tend to position them so I can get a peaky at what is on each one, much quicker than finding and reading tabs, and that's what I do with colors on X windows too, when I'm not full-screen on one particular thing.

    And standars – did I miss something, or is there something wrong with http://validator.w3.org/check?uri=http://theapp… ?

  35. Jake Says:

    I was planning to check it out from IE6 and comment, but wow, I can't even open this blog in IE6.

    First, it kept trying to load the Friend Connect toolbar, which was livable, but then it croaked entirely. Now, it dies every time. Sweet.

    Sorry about the comments and that you're ever stuck with IE6. I put the blame on Disqus :)

    One feature I like about the newer FF builds and Chrome is the ability to tear away a tab into a new window (and vice versa). Fits all use cases pretty well.

    Fun fact: I'm writing this comment from Netscape 6, and it looks pretty good.

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