Internet Explorer 6 – Should we still be supporting it?

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6 was released way back in 2001 and has been the browser of choice for the majority of web surfers up until the release of the version 7 incarnation in 2006.

Even now statistics show that at least 25% of visitors are still using it, and in some cases can be as high as 36% with corporate users (from figures gathered from our own servers and Certainly in the case of corporate users security, cost and logistic issues associated with upgrading may explain the higher figures, but there has been a steady decline in the use of IE6 amongst the general populous.

With the possible release of Internet Explorer 8 before the release of Windows 7 sometime at the end of 2009 (attributed to James Pratt, a senior product manager for Microsoft, source), the question is should web developers and the general public still be supporting and browsing with IE 6?

37signals, makers of the popular project management solution Basecamp, recently announced that they would phase out support for IE6 in August 2008. This has been considered a brave move by many, but as they have admitted themselves the continued support of this last generation browser is holding back development of better web applications. In their words, ‘…IE 6 means slower progress, less progress, and, in some places, no progress.’

In our own experience, additional time (and so costs) have been noticed in some cases involving IE6 compatibility issues. Although there are ‘hacks’ that can be placed on the design elements, these often fail scrutiny of accessibility troubleshooters such as the one found on the W3C website.

Another design issue involves the image file format, PNG, a lossless format that allows advanced transparency within the image. This format is support by all the major modern browsers, including IE7. Again there are workarounds to get IE6 to show the transparency using combinations of style sheet transparency and javascript.

There are many references across the net urging people to upgrade their browsers from IE 6, just Google why internet explorer 6 should not be supported and you can see for yourself. Pushup is just one example of a campaign to get users to upgrade their browser to the latest versions.

In terms of security, there may be little difference between IE6 and 7 at the moment. A feature that IE7 offers that IE6 does not (by default) is ‘phishing’ protection. Phishing is where a malicious site attempts to pass itself off as another site and prompts the visitor to enter personal information which may be used for spam or worse still identity theft. This feature has been back-ported by Microsoft for IE6. Eventually Microsoft will stop supporting security updates for this browser. As for IE 8 there will be a feature that will help protect users from malicious software, also known as malware, which is software intended to cause damage to your Windows installation. It is unlikely that Microsoft will back-port this feature leaving IE6 users open to potential damage, unless pressure from corporates force Microsoft to implement these fixes. But why should they? By the end of 2009 they would have developed two new browsers since 6, and it is common practice for software manufacturers to drop support for older versions.

The counter arguments to the ‘ditch IE6’ view do have some merit. Even though IE6’s share of the browser market is declining, it still has a significant minority (25% at the time of writing), this could mean that sites may be missing a third more traffic if they use technologies incompatible with IE6. However the reality is that the vast majority of technologies currently being used are compatible with IE6.

The other argument, and certainly a very important one, is in regards to the corporate user. In these situations, for whatever reasons, the user only has access to systems that cannot be upgraded to IE7 or another modern browser. To create sites that rely on technologies that IE6 is incapable of viewing would be a major oversight as a developer.

This is a difficult area, as developers we should strive to fulfill the requirements of clients, including support for whatever browser version they choose. However it would be a failing on our part not to advise on the path to upgrading.

In my own opinion there is little excuse for the general user not upgrade to Internet Explorer 7, Microsoft are even presenting IE7 as a high priority update. Other excellent offerings come from Mozilla, Firefox, the Opera browser, or even the Apple Mac OS browser Safari which has been available to Windows users for some time now. So get upgraded and prompt developers to push the web to it’s full potential!

(Small note to employees of the corporations, suggest upgrading, and start supporting a faster and more secure internet).

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About Steven

I'm one of the web developers "I like Linux and play with cables"

I gained a degree in Physics from the University of Nottingham in 1994. Since then I've been a network analyst, programmed Windows based applications in DELPHI for financial institutions, developed and designed web applications in PHP and MySQL, and I'm also a strong advocate of open-source technology including the Linux based operating system Ubuntu, and web applications such as Joomla and Wordpress.

My tasks at Inmeres Solutions Ltd include the development of new web applications, development of components and plug-ins for existing open-source software, and maintenance of the internal networks.

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