The misguided war against IE6


IE6 is universally reviled among web developers for its poor support of web standards, namely with CSS and even PNG transparency. Many hours of hair-pulling frustration have been wasted when developing web applications, trying to “get things working right” in IE6 after having already spent so much time making a site look good in most of the other browsers. IE7, while better, is still not that great.

So, you may be surprised to know that I think the “War against IE6” is misguided and perhaps a bit out of touch with reality. It’s not that I don’t believe in their message, but rather that I believe it’s somewhat impractical. The unfortunate reality is that support for IE6 will have to continue for some time.

Preaching to the converted

The article suggests using a conditional comment tag to show a nice “warning” to IE6 users, recommending that they upgrade to a newer browser, preferably one that isn’t IE at all. The “warning” is shown in a comforting green colour, suggesting peace and tranquility rather than the typical yellow/amber of other warnings. Note that this is much better than using a modal dialog box forcing people to read why you think they should stop using IE6.

For the most part, this message appeals most to those who stopped using IE a long time ago. These people are keenly aware of the drawbacks of IE6, and indeed even the drawbacks of IE7 and IE8. You don’t need to convince these people to switch, as they already have. But what about those that haven’t, such as the average user? Well, unfortunately they don’t care and are likely to be annoyed at yet another warning asking them to upgrade their software; to them, it’ll be indistinguishable from the plethora of ads, popups and such asking them to download and install software they don’t know about.

Technical details for the non-technical

The unfortunate fact is that most people simply don’t care about what browser they’re using. Furthermore, they don’t want to switch because what they’ve been using has worked for so long and from their point of view, it isn’t “broken”. Indeed, although Firefox has been nicely eating away at IE’s market share in the past few years, the real decline in IE6 happened when Microsoft started pushing out IE7. People generally won’t upgrade unless something is horribly broken or they are forced to.

This creates a sort of catch-22. You could code your website to not work at all with IE6, but then people would simply leave and go to another one. Only if absolutely every site out there did the same, would there be a chance of this having a real effect. This is apparently the goal of this campaign, but I fail to see how it will pick up “critical mass” since the early adopters will suffer the most if they alienate their users this way.

Restrictions to the market

Furthermore, as the article acknowledges, corporations are notoriously slow when it comes to adopting patches, upgrades and new versions of software because of the extra support and training required of their staff and IT teams. This is why you won’t find the latest versions of MS Office being rapidly deployed right on release day, nor will you find many businesses scrambling to install the latest Windows Service Pack on their workstations. Heck, many are still using XP and will continue to do so for some time. I imagine Windows 2000 still has a small but noticeable install base.

For this reason, IE6 still has a large install base in businesses. Heck, in my work place IE6 is still the standard, and indeed some of the corporate intranet sites only work in IE6. It is a damn shame and a travesty, but one that’s a reality of the corporate world.

Even technical people such as non-web developers still use IE6 at my workplace because of corporate policy. They are completely free to use Firefox or Opera (as I do) but “choose” or stick with IE6 simply because it’s there and that’s what they’ve been using for 5+ years. If these people can’t be bothered to switch, what’s to make even less technically-inclined folks switch? This reinforces the idea that people won’t switch unless it’s done for them, by default.

E-commerce: The big question

This sort of thing would never fly in the world of e-commerce, where your goal is to attract the widest share of users, not alienate them through an admirable, but misguided attempt to improve the state of the web. The goal of an e-commerce site is to make the flow of things and user interaction as smooth as possible. They last thing you want is a large warning, even if it’s in green, to disrupt the user.

This article clarifies that they are not trying to “dictate” to users what browser they should use, and then laughably suggests that “You can use any browser you want, so as long as it’s not IE.” (Paraphrasing)

Such a position would be suicide in the business world. IE still has significant market share, and like it or not, it will have to be supported for some time. This would be like refusing to write software for Windows when > 90% of your potential user base uses that OS, just because you don’t agree with its security model.

Summing it up

Let me reiterate that I agree with the principals of the “War against IE6”, having suffered much and sacrificed many hours at the IE6 altar, trying to get layouts and designs working right in that awful browser. I don’t mean to be negative, but am just trying to put a realistic spin on things. Ironically, we can look forward to increased adoption of Vista and the upcoming Windows 7 as ways to put the final nail in IE6’s coffin, even if it is in favour of IE7 and IE8.


  1. It’s also worth noting that a fair number of users can’t upgrade to IE7 or 8 because they are stuck of Windows platforms that don’t support it, and I’m guessing that most people on IE6 don’t see non-IE browsers as an option. Depending on the stats you look at, about 1.5% of users (so 10-15% of IE6 users) are on Windows 2000 or below. I’m guessing a high percentage of the rest are stuck on Windows XP service pack 1, either because they have a hooky copy of the OS with a blacklisted serial that prevents the installation of SP2, or because they are stuck in a corporate environment where SP1 is still the adopted standard.

    I work in an organisation with 3500 PCs, all running IE6 on Windows XP SP1. For a year I’ve been wearing down my managers to let me experiment with trying to overthrow IE6 with Firefox and it looks like I’ve finally got the go ahead. This is the way to kill IE6 – people in corporate IT teams need to push for the deployment of better browsers on their networks. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the people who use IE6 at home also use it at work – maybe if they saw how much better a newer browser performs with AJAX applications, they might switch at home too.

    I think developers need to consider the campaign in the context of their own sites too. I work in local government, where there’s absolutely no way that I could thumb my nose at IE6 users on our public site. Would I put a banner like this on the site for my brother’s plumbing business site or my mother’s bed and breakfast site? No, because those sites are their to attract business – preaching about my own personal gripes with Microsoft would not be appropriate. But on another site I’m developing – a tool for developers to test regular expressions – yes I would. There, my audience ought to know better, and if they are too lazy to use a half decent browser, as far as I’m concerned they can go dangle, because I’m not doing the IE6 dance for them. In fact, for that site I intend to just block IE6 users completely so I don’t have to think about what the site might or might not look like in that the festering turd of a browser that is IE6.

  2. Interesting take, but I think the idea is to get enough sites using these types of warnings that the browser would then become “broken” and users would have a reason to upgrade, the only way this works is if a ton of websites get involved. Think about if sites like google, craigslist, facebook, or twitter got involved, users wouldn’t have any other alternative. Not sure how effective they are but there are mobile apps that allow you to use updated browsers without actually installing them, if they are effective this is definitely a viable alternative and should be used until the corporations can get it sorted. What has become clear is that until we (web developers) grow some balls and take a stand on this, we’ll be stuck with the limitations of that god awful browser, as well as the wasted hours. Maybe I’m skewed because it’s 3am and I want to launch my new site update and I’m dealing with damn ie6 haha, but this is getting pretty old and I’m joining the cause and disabling ie6 support on 8/27.

  3. Also “word” to what William said, love the line “that festering turd of a browser that is IE6” haha.

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