British Government Rejects IE6 Upgrade Petition

In February 2010, I reported that UK citizens could sign an online petition which demanded Internet Explorer 6 updates across all Government departments. The 6 June deadline has now passed and the Government has posted their response. You won’t be happy — they’re keeping IE6.

It’s a shame but we shouldn’t be surprised. The petition attracted just 6,223 signatures so it was hardly a mandate from the British people. That’s a reasonable number of web designers and developers but, since we’re the main beneficiaries, no one could say it was unbiased.

The petition’s biggest mistake was to cite security as the main concern:

IE6 has some security flaws that leave users vulnerable. These two governments (France and Germany) have let their populations know that an upgrade will keep them safer online. We should follow them.

The issue was too vague and could be accused of scaremongering. The Government’s response:

Complex software will always have vulnerabilities and motivated adversaries will always work to discover and take advantage of them. There is no evidence that upgrading away from the latest fully patched versions of Internet Explorer to other browsers will make users more secure. Regular software patching and updating will help defend against the latest threats. The Government continues to work with Microsoft and other internet browser suppliers to understand the security of the products used by HMG, including Internet Explorer and we welcome the work that Microsoft are continuing do on delivering security solutions which are deployed as quickly as possible to all Internet Explorer users.

Each Department is responsible for managing the risks to its IT systems based on Government Information Assurance policy and technical advice from CESG, the National Technical Authority for Information Assurance. Part of this advice is that regular software patching and updating will help defend against the latest threats. It is for individual departments to make the decision on how best to manage the risk based on this clear guidance.

IE6 has had more it’s fair share of vulnerabilities, but it’s also received a decade’s worth of security patches. In Europe, the browser’s market share has fallen below 3.5% so it’s no longer a high-priority target for hackers. Finally, Government departments have stringent security systems in place: it’s not easy for a user to become infected when they can’t access the outside web.

Perhaps the petition would have had a better chance during less challenging economic times. The final part of the Government response highlights the complexity and cost to the taxpayer:

It is not straightforward for HMG departments to upgrade IE versions on their systems. Upgrading these systems to IE8 can be a very large operation, taking weeks to test and roll out to all users. To test all the web applications currently used by HMG departments can take months at significant potential cost to the taxpayer. It is therefore more cost effective in many cases to continue to use IE6 and rely on other measures, such as firewalls and malware scanning software, to further protect public sector internet users.

The new UK Government has embarked on a massive cost-cutting exercise. Citizens are unlikely to be receptive toward millions spent on IT upgrades of negligible benefit when that cost can be directly compared against job losses, nurses salaries, education and defense budgets.

The problem for us is that 12 months is a long time in Internet years and browser upgrading is easy. Yet most Government IT projects have a minimum timescale of 5 to 10 years and the technologies they adopt are reliable (they’re already old). Even those departments undergoing an upgrade are only just moving to IE7. It’s frustrating but, even if they implemented Firefox 3.6 or Chrome 5 today, we’d be demanding further upgrades within a few months.

Ultimately, you have an easy choice. If you don’t want to develop for IE6, don’t undertake jobs where it’s a requirement.

Read the full UK Government IE6 petition response…

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  • http://www.jeepstone.co.uk petersen

    In times of austerity, you do what’s needed to do, not what can be worked around. The IE6 problem has existed for years, and should not present any problems to an accomplished developer. Whether you accommodate it, ignore IE completely, or try and go pixel perfect, there are ample solutions to the problems. With regards to security, again, most government departments should be all over any security issues.

    Let’s not spend public money on this, even if it would make most of us (including me) very happy.

  • http://www.bluesulphur.com squig

    The irony is that the government’s response is (paraphrased), “if you’re running the latest, fully-patched software then you’re OK,” … which is the main point of the petition! As of 13th July 2010, IE6 is no longer supported by Microsoft, so it’s far from the “latest” software.
    I agree that the petition may not have been the most persuasive campaign in the history of UK politics, but their response does nothing to inspire my confidence in those who form the government’s IT policies.

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      I think their argument is subtly different. They’re saying that even if you have the latest and greatest fully-patched browser, there are no guarantees you’re OK.

    • Dan Frydman

      Microsoft extended the end of life for IE6 to July 2014, the same date as end of life for Windows XP.

      The purpose of the petition was to get government to recommend the move, not to tell them to do it.

      Since then the new government has stated it wants to cut staff costs by putting more services online. That’s best done with more up to date technology than IE6. Leaving government staff without the basic tools to do their revised jobs is irresponsible and NOT having a plan to upgrade, for when the money comes along is disappointing.

      • Girlie.

        What’s going to happen to Windows XP after July 2014? Does that mean I can still use windows XP on my computer, just no more updates? Or is it really, the end?

      • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

        Your PC will explode!

        Don’t worry — all that will happen is that Microsoft won’t release further updates or patches. You can still use XP, like you can still use Windows 98, but you’ll find that software manufacturers also stop releasing compatible software.

        Do you really intend using XP for another 4 years or more? Most PCs have a lifetime of 3-5 years. If you don’t like Vista/7, I suggest you try Ubuntu or another flavor of Linux.

      • boltronics

        I’ll be watching very closely to see if MS will actually allow people to reactivate their copy of Windows XP when it has reached end of life (when doing a reinstall or hardware change). I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft just refuses to help out, and make the Automatic Update alerts go nuts with warnings telling people to upgrade.

        Much like in the case of video games that try to install DRM software on your machine (eg. Spore), cracks for Windows XP will be the norm. Any why not? XP owners won’t miss out on a thing by doing so, and it will probably be the only practical option anyway (for those hellbent on sticking with it).

    • http://fvsch.com Florent V.

      Microsoft announced last year that they would support XP and IE6 until 2014. Four more years.

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      The petition asked the Government to recommend IE6 upgrades to the public, but mainly:

      Most creative and software development companies are forced by government department clients to build websites for IE6 when most of the industry has moved on.
      Companies insist that they need IE6 support because government departments use it and won’t be able to see their sites or services without it.

      Why should the Government need to recommend IE6 upgrades if the industry’s already moved on?
      And what functions can’t be achieved by those staff using IE6?

      • Dan Frydman

        With Google saying they won’t support IE6, it closes off a whole range of services – Google Apps, YouTube, lots of cloud-based sites that rely on ‘grown up’ use of Javascript. Without them lots of IE6 users will be second class citizens online.

        Some will say that developers should work with IE6 users in mind. With less than 5% of users on IE6 in Europe and Asia, the excuse for holding the rest of us back is shrinking fast.

      • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

        But that’s Google’s problem … they won’t be able to sell lucrative Government contracts. Besides, they still support IE6 – they’ve only announced an intention not to guarantee it for future features.

        And how is IE6′s JavaScript a problem? You can get around any issue and all the top libraries support it.

  • http://www.broken-links.com/ stopsatgreen

    I’m currently performing usability testing in a corporate environment which still has all of its users on IE6, and watching people struggling with a slow and unresponsive system, when I know that a modern browser would be so much faster, almost makes me weep.

    The petition should have made more of a point about the wasted productivity inherent in using IE6 with rich JavaScript applications.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure I understand where the great cost of ‘testing’ newer browsers is coming from?

    Surely it’s a given websites are going to be working better on modern browsers – I wouldn’t have thought there would be anything to test?

    The only possible concern I could really see is when using bespoke internal systems that were written for IE6 and have never been updated.

    What’s to stop these offices installing Firefox for general web access and keeping IE6 when a fallback’s really required?

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      Legacy IE6-only systems is probably the biggest and most expensive issue. Remember that we are talking about thousands of intranet applications many of which were developed when IE6 was the only web browser available.

      Having Firefox and IE will simply cause confusion for many users. You can guarantee that half the support calls will be from users accessing IE6-only applications in Firefox. Chrome Frame is a better solution.

  • http://www.patricksamphire.com/ PatrickSamphire

    Government: holding back progress everywhere.

  • FunkyDUde

    I say the heck with it, just design using html5 or css3 with adequate graceful degradation, but don’t lose sleep because the page acts a little different in IE6. You have to draw the line somewhere between compatibility and progress…

  • Code Junkie

    So I feel like at this point we’ve all made our argument about IE 6 until we’re blue in the face. Web developers typically hate IE 6 for the extra amount of work we do fixing Microsoft’s screw ups. Microsoft claims (I think legitimately) that they have to support windows XP users for the life of their product and since IE 6 is tied into that product, they have to support IE 6. Companies claim that they can’t get rid of IE 6 because their applications will stop working.

    At some point, we’re at a stalemate because we all have legitimate arguments and no potential solutions. My question is this: “what are we doing now to prevent ourselves from ending up in this same situation in 10 years?” I believe that hindsight shows us clearly what mistakes lead to this irritating problem, and I think there is a possible solution to prevent it from cropping up again. What if the new html 5 doctype declarations supported some kind of legacy code that is designed to be supported by future browsers?

    A doctype addition could say something like: IE10. IE 9 could be programed so that when IE 10 is introduced, users are promoted to either A) upgrade to IE 10 or B) upgrade their browser in the background so that it still behaves the same as IE 9 unless it sees the IE 10 doctype, in which case it behaves like IE 10. This would mean that anything made specifically for IE 9 could still work just fine while we could move everything toward IE 10′s improved functionality with no conflict on the part of either party.

    Finally, Microsoft could just stop tying their browsers into their operating systems to the point where they can’t be upgraded. This way, they would have no conflict in upgrading either.

    Users could keep whatever experience they want to no matter how bad it is and we could keep from having this same discussion about IE 8 or IE 9 in 10 years.

  • http://www.idude.net iDude

    Will somebody please explain to me what features of MSIE 6.0 that companies/governments are so ball and chained to? I never got tangled up in a mess where MSIE 6.0 turned into a requirement. There’s a few MS technologies such as Data Islands that I thought were amazing, however were not supported by other browsers. Other technologies from other vendors such as XUL, I’ve also thought were amazing. However, I’ve avoided working with or offering to clients not knowing the shelf life would be. In all honestly, I’ve even avoided flash as much as possible over the years. Anyways, back to MSIE 6.0. What features (that I totally ignored at the time) got used that has everybody in a state of grid lock here? Better yet, why didn’t other developers see the obvious in regards to it being questionable technology at the time?

    • http://blog.geekyjohn.com AussieJohn

      There are a lot of old intranet sites, especially in large corporate environments and government, that – like Craig pointed out – were built when IE6 was the only browser worth using. A lot of those intranet sites use things like ActiveX controls, IE6 specific JavaScript. Beyond that, there is also the Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK), which allows organizations to customise IE for their needs.

      ActiveX controls aren’t supported in non-IE browsers which leaves a lot of these intranet sites dead in the water if you would upgrade to Firefox, Safari or Chrome.

      One typical solution that I have seen implemented in a few organizations is only using IE6 for those specific intranet sites and using Firefox (for example) for browsing the Internet.

  • didgy58

    i think the last line in the article said it all really

    Ultimately, you have an easy choice. If you don’t want to develop for IE6, don’t undertake jobs where it’s a requirement.

  • Sphamandla

    Well there you have if you dont want to develop for ie6 dont take jobs where its a reqiurement and i think that its reasonable and that the government have a logical reason to why they refuse to upgrade from ie6.

  • joejac

    Hello,

    This has no sense for me, evolution is the way, in my humble opinion we can not live and work in the past.

    Why we, the web designers, that suffers the consequence of hundreds of working hours lost checking our designs in different browsers, do not joint together in a huge “International Web Designers Group” and establish our own rules, we are the designers, we move the Web.

    So we demand a clear set of common respected standards among all available browsers, AND we, by the vote of the majority, decide the “de facto Standard Browser” so we design ONLY for that browser and the rest of browsers has to comply.

    If no designer accept to work in a project supporting obsolete technology, we will succeed, and the Web will be a nice place to browse and we all will navigate in tranquil seas.

    Hope this idea get listened.
    Best regards
    joejac

    • Amit

      joejac,
      I Strongly agree with you. I work on web applications that use many client side and server side technologies. The biggest hurdle i came across was browser compatibility..! if it works on IE7 then not on IE 8 or Firefox 3.6…! And Saffari behaves differently on MAC and windows… oh hell…! So this is the right time to define a set of standards that have to be complied by all the browsers. As far as IE 6 is concerned, I guess its is better to upgrade than spend time wastefully waiting for in front of the old slow PC.
      Let me take my own example.. i had an old windows xp machine on which i had to work on resource hungry softwares. At time I used to get really frustrated I was wondering why can’t i carry my personal laptop to work..! Now i have a windows 7 machine and work is like a breeze…!

      • joejac

        Thanks a lot Amit for your support.

        No matter which computer/operating system we use to work, we need a set of clear standards, and at least one common browser platform that comply with that minimum set of standards.

        And if all web developers/designers join together in this type of Global Group and decide which would be that common browser platform, by features and vote, independently of manufacturers, then we will tell all our customers which would be the main browser to use, period.

        But the issue here is to get full agreement among web developers/designers, and all of them joining this type of Group.

        I propose that a trusted, ethical and unbiased organization to be the host and initial promoter for the creation of this Global Group. Of course every web developer/designer has to contribute to this organization in order to succeed, but if we all support it we will all succeed, including or customers.

        I do not know if Site Point’s Executives and Technical Experts agree with this challenge, but whom support this project will make history and will help to introduce good control in present Web confusion. It is a big responsibility but the reward will be also big for everybody using the Web.

        I am here to be the first to join and support this Group and to create the Working Agenda for the Group, the faster the better.

        Who would like to support and to create this Group?

        Best regards
        joejac

  • http://blog.geekyjohn.com AussieJohn

    @joejac & @amit:

    I think for the most part, the working group you are talking about, might be similar or the same as groups and organisations already out there.
    “The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international community that develops standards to ensure the long-term growth of the Web.” – http://w3.org ;-)

    While the idea of only developing for standards and not worrying about any browser or device that doesn’t comply would be nice, as it would cut down massively on development time and developer headaches, it would also be something that would leave a lot of users with broken websites/software.

    A lot of browsers are already taking the correct steps: Providing support for standards and then further enhancing their software so that it might be the first to market with a particular feature.

    Unfortunately we are currently dealing with some of the last remnants of the great browser war (IE6), where “awesome features” were used over forward compatibility (i.e. standards support). However, things are looking up, more and more browser manufacturers are ensuring standards compliance as the browser landscape is getting more mature.

    • joejac

      Hello AussieJohn,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      1.- W3C is fine, but they are only proposing standards, it is not the same. And in all these years they did not solved the web confusion with regards to transparent execution of web sites/applications among browsers. It is very difficult to have a consistent view/performance of same web site/application among ALL available browsers today, so “broken websites/software” is not the real issue.

      2.- We, the developers, are the most affected, neither customers nor browsers manufacturers will pay our time lost in this non sense type of work. So the idea of a group so big that can have a decisive impact over the consistency of browser arena it is necessary for both, developers and web site users.

      2.1 If we do not do anything real effective now, browser manufacturers will continue involved in their nonsense browsers war, and we, that are in the middle, will continue losing. Human race did nothing about Nuclear and Mass destruction weapons in the forties, so, where we are now?, we are threatened by anyone with nukes. Why?, because nobody created a so powerful group that had taken forceful measures to stop the threat.

      Please see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2006/may/26/energy.iran

      3. Conclusion: to go ahead and to think others will resolve our problems?, no, if we do not unite together in one strong, single voice and action, nobody will do it for us, we will keep waiting. I would suggest a good sofa and TV on demand…. RIP.

      Best regards
      joejac

  • NI

    IE6 was the best browser in 2001, and it is still surprisingly good today, as modern websites can be made / hacked working with it. No other browser from 2001 would be even remotely capable of that.