The Decline and Fall of Internet Explorer 6

Implications for Webmasters


The Decline and Fall of Internet Explorer 6: Implications for Webmasters

by Christopher Heng, thesitewizard.com

There has been a flurry of news lately about Internet Explorer 6 ("IE6"). Microsoft has been subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) trying to persuade end-users to upgrade to Internet Explorer 8 ("IE8") through its various security bulletins. (That is, every time a security hole is discovered in Internet Explorer ["IE"], they recommend that users upgrade to IE8 whether or not that actually solves the problem.) At the same time, Google has been gradually dropping support for IE6 in its services, from YouTube and Orkut to Google Docs and Google Sites (the latter two in March 2010). Webmasters the world over anticipate (or, perhaps more accurately, hope) that Google's move will accelerate IE6's demise. This article discusses the implications of IE6's fall for those who maintain websites.

The IE6 Market Share Has Already Been Declining For Some Time Now

My browser statistics has been registering the decline of IE 6's usage on my sites for some time now. For example, only 6% of the total number of visitors to thesitewizard.com during the period July 2009 to January 2010 used IE6. While you may argue that this site tends to attract a more technical crowd (webmasters and potential webmasters), and so have statistics that are not representative of the general population, I'm not alone in reporting a decline. Across the board, even on sites not dealing with technology, webmasters have seen a fall in the use of IE6 among their visitors (although probably not so drastically).

What's With the IE6 Animosity?

If you are not a webmaster you'll probably be wondering why IE6 is so universally hated. IE6 has an extremely buggy implementation of something called "CSS", the technology that controls the appearance of a web page. If you create a website with a design any more complicated than a single column of plain text, following the proper CSS standards, your website will probably appear correct in every web browser (IE8, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, etc) except IE6 and (to a lesser extent) IE7.

This makes creating a new design for a website a big headache. Not only do you have to come up with a good design, after you figure it out, you'll have to come up with ways of making IE6 display your site correctly, without breaking things for the other browsers. As a result, unless you use the standard design templates that come with web editors like Dreamweaver (which have pre-packaged designs with all the necessary workarounds integrated), you'll have to learn things like how to use different CSS style sheets for different browsers and make it a habit to test your site with multiple browsers.

(Note: I know IE6 is disliked for other reasons as well, for example for its security flaws, but since this article was written from the point of view of a webmaster, and is directed to other webmasters or webmasters-to-be, those aspects are outside its scope.)

The Webmaster's Dilemma

The problem with the dwindling usage of IE6 is that the browser is still not really dead. Even a small percentage of users still translates to a large number of people if your traffic is great. For example, while 6% of 100 people is only 6 people, 6% of (say) a million translates to 60,000 people, each of whom is your potential customer. Indeed, I suspect that the remaining IE6 users are not IE6 users by choice: they are probably using their company's computers, where corporate policy may prevent them from installing a different browser on a whim.

As such the decision to drop IE6 support from your website is not an easy one. After all, you don't want to prevent people who may be your customers from accessing your website. (Of course, conversely, as long as websites continue to support IE6, the browser is not going to die out fast since companies will have less incentive to upgrade.)

For People with Existing Websites

Personally, I feel that if your site already has IE6 support, there's no urgent need to remove support for it. Since you've already invested time and energy to develop an IE6-compatible site, you might as well leave it in place, unless you find that the IE6 workarounds are causing some other problem.

This is generally the practice I will take for my sites as well, mainly for thefreecountry.com and howtohaven.com. (As far as I remember, thesitewizard.com does not use any IE6 workarounds, so there's nothing to remove.) Having said that, should I make design changes to my sites, my plan is to no longer test it under IE6, nor bother to only use only the subset of CSS rules that IE6 recognizes. While I'm not advocating that you do the same, since your needs and audience will differ from mine, you may also want to weigh the cost of time spent debugging your design under IE6 against the benefits of supporting a dwindling audience that will probably disappear all the more quickly now that Google is phasing out support for IE6.

So when can you actually remove support completely? Unfortunately, nobody can really tell you this. Like they say of old soldiers, old browsers don't die (an abrupt death), they just fade away. For example, my sites used to support an old and popular browser called Netscape 4 back in the 1990s and early 2000s, even long after its heyday. There wasn't a specific day or hour when the browser suddenly disappeared from the landscape. However, there came a time when it was no longer necessary to support it, since few other sites on the Internet did. As such, I figured that if few sites supported the browser, it's unlikely that anyone was still using it in any serious way to surf (since they would not have been able to access most of the Internet). That was when I decided it was safe to drop support as well.

But the Internet has become a lot more complicated than those early days. More people are now online, and they are dependant on a greater number of web services to do their jobs and interact. So perhaps you don't have to wait an interminable number of years to get rid of your IE6 workarounds. For example, I have a feeling that the day Gmail stops supporting IE6, a huge number of users will suddenly upgrade, and the number remaining may be so small that it is no longer significant.

For People Starting Out New Websites

The question that I have been asked by a visitor (that spurred this article), is whether you should spend time making a completely new site work in IE6.

This is not as easy a question to answer as you may think. A lot depends on your site design, your skill level, the software you're using, the purpose of your website and the type of audience you have.

One Last Thing

If you have an existing website, check your web statistics or logs. That will tell you how much time you need to devote to IE6. As I have mentioned in my article on interpreting browser statistics, different websites will show a different usage pattern where browsers are concerned. Thus you should not take my "6%" as indicative of what your website will experience. For all you know, the IE6 usage on your site may still be as strong as ever, so taking any action to remove its support may be premature.

Copyright © 2010-2014 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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