Would You Tax IE7?

Contributing Editor

This story has taken on a life of its own. The news that Australian online retailer Kogan.com is applying an Internet Explorer 7.0 tax has been reported by web and traditional media agencies across the world. The business owner, Ruslan Kogan, wanted to recoup the time and costs involved in making his website work in the antique browser. Therefore, an extra 6.8% is charged to customers purchasing goods using IE7 — or 0.1% for every month since its launch.

IE7 tax

Web developers will recognize Kogan’s pain:

The amount of work and effort involved in making our website look normal on IE7 equaled the combined time of designing for Chrome, Safari and Firefox.

In reality, a charge is never applied and the “tax” is discounted as soon as you reach the payment page. The story was a highly effective marketing stunt which captured the headlines. Kogan admits that just 3% of his audience use IE7 and I have doubts about their development frustrations; the site doesn’t look great in the old browser and crashed my installation! However, Kogan received near universal praise for his taxation idea.

I’ve made scathing comments about IE7 in the past. For me, it’s worse than IE6. While IE6 had plenty of bugs, they were well understood and easy to code around. IE7 fixed many of the major issues but introduced several new which were far more difficult to solve. So an IE7 tax is a great idea, right?

Wrong.

Kogan’s browser policy made me uncomfortable. As (good) website developers, we have a duty to support the web applications people are using. We may not like it and we can encourage users to switch but, ultimately, we cannot dictate what browser an individual should or shouldn’t use. I’m amazed anyone wants IE7, but they must be permitted to make that choice. Some may be unable to use any other browser.

That’s not to say all websites must be fully IE7-compatible. Pixel perfection is futile and it struggles with JavaScript-heavy pages. I rarely give the browser more than a cursory glance — if a site’s functional, that’s good enough. In the case of complex HTML5 web applications such as a canvas-based game, IE7 users may receive little more than a message stating their browser is not compatible with suggestions for alternatives.

However, a downgraded experience is not the same as active prejudice against a subset of users. Put it this way, how would you have reacted if Kogan taxed shoppers using a screen reader? They’re even tougher to support and used by far fewer people.

Kogan’s IE7 tax was an incredibly successful marketing ploy. Even if the site lost 3% of IE7 customers, it was more than counteracted by the free worldwide publicity the company received. You’re unlikely to be so lucky — blocking (or taxing) users with a specific browser will harm no one but you.

The IE7 tax story highlights a worrying trend in the IT industry. Web users are being forced to use specific applications because of OS lock-in and a resurgence of browser-targeted development. Freedom of choice is being stifled by companies who think they know what’s best for us.

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  • http://mikebull.info Mike

    This seems to be one of the only blogs that recognises the tax for what it was, a very clever PR stunt.

    Those who think that the cost of supporting IE6 or IE7 isn’t worth the cost of selling to those users is stupid. For any mildly successful business that support pays for itself very quickly and given that, ultimately, the cost of building a high-end website is very cheap even developers that charge an arm and a leg for legacy browser support are a blip on the radar of a legitimate sites budget.

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

      I’m sure IE7 doesn’t account for many of Kogan’s sales — probably proportionally less than the 3% of visitors they claim to have. Let’s assume it’s 1% — that’s still millions of users.

  • Chris Emerson

    In any case, shouldn’t the tax be .1% since IE8s release, not IE7s? ie, since there has been a better alternative available?

  • http://outsidethemarginals.wordpress.com David

    Web users are being forced to use specific applications because of OS lock-in and a resurgence of browser-targeted development.

    Developing for all browsers is becoming a royal pain and is causing some organisations (like the BBC) to require you to have a facebook account in order to comment or communicate with some program teams. In effect they are giving up and requiring the public to subscribe to a monopolistic organisation with a debateable attitude to privacy. They claim this is a cost effective way to control their internet costs.

    If by seeking to move users from the very old browsers – e.g. IE6&7 – to a smaller set of more recent freely available alternatives you can make savings such that you can support open means of communication, so be it. Absolute choice is unrealistic. But to give up and start handing over to closed organisations like facebook has to be the wrong solution.

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

      Developing for multiple browsers is easier than it’s ever been. IE6/7 has always been painful but they are finally dying out.

      If the web is about anything, it’s freedom of choice.

  • Chris

    I’d agree we should be supporting IE7, in the way you suggest, not worrying about pixel perfection etc, and in some circumstances a ‘not compatible, please try…’ message is acceptable.

    However I don’t think the tax is an ‘active prejudice against a subset of users.’ I think the point of the tax was highlight to IE7 users there are other options – I’d imagine that most people using IE7 haven’t chosen to do so, and only continue to use it as it is the windows default browser. They haven’t been convinced, or had a compelling reason to try something else.

    I’m sure getting to this tax screen made a few IE7 users consider other options which must be good thing! And the fact the issue has been discussed on large news websites is great.

    Having said all this I don’t believe that other sites should be imitating this – once a user has seen this message once, and decided to ignore it once, the next time they see it, they will ignore it once again.

    If a site wants to do their bit, and help communicate the ‘please upgrade message’ they should find their own innovate way to do this – and I wish them the best of luck to get the message as much media attention as Kogan has!

  • http://god.com.ar Mariano

    I am wondering how much to charge IE6 users

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

      Perhaps you should pay them to switch … it might be cheaper than development costs!

  • https://timshomepage.net Timothy Warren

    I don’t understand why IE7 ist still used at all. IE 8 has a compatibility mode that’s close enough.
    As well, there’s no OS that supports IE7 that can’t upgrade to IE8.

    In this case, I think company IT departments should take far more blame.

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

      How easy do you find it to upgrade your browser? A few minutes effort? Now multiply that by 10,000 for some of the biggest organizations and government departments. That’s more tricky.

      Of course people should upgrade, but it must be done on their own terms and schedule. Ultimately, some people may still prefer IE7. I can’t think of any reasons why, but it’s their choice.

      • S Harbour

        I work for a large bank and we have our own custom build of Windows XP and this includes IE6. I don’t know how many desktops there are but we have 140,000+ employees, with a presence in most countries in the world. There is a project in place to upgrade to a new desktop build based on Windows 7. This has been going on for some time now and no obvious end is in sight. A large number of users are on hardware that Windows 7 will struggle on. Apart from administrators virtually everyone else has little or no administration rights, so DIY upgrades are not possible – and attempts are logged to the Security team.

        A large number of internal applications were developed and tested against IE6 many years ago and are known to “break” under IE7+ or other browsers. Work is ongoing to resolve these issues but it sometimes takes a back seat due to other developments. Oh, and as we are a bank there are severe cutbacks taking place across the whole company, especially to IT budgets!

        There is an alternative for some users which is Firefox. I’m using this browser now. However it’s version 3.6.9. It’s not great, but so much better than IE6.

      • WB

        Completely agree with this, and it’s a point a lot of developers miss. Consider old intranet applications that are developed for old browsers, and do not run on chrome. The management, time and cost implication to businesses wishing to upgrade is daunting.

        I’m not sure how much fun it will be explaining to a client that their site doesn’t work in their own browser but, “Trust us, it looks great in chrome.” In time old versions of IE will phase out, but in the meantime know and understand your clients situation and they’ll love you much more for it, or they’ll simply look elsewhere for work.

  • http://www.deadnode.org/ James Sutherland

    I love the idea of eliminating the most troublesome legacy browsers – with even Microsoft themselves getting on board, with ie6countdown.com – but I do share your wariness of trying to impose “approved” browsers. Yesterday, I was looking at Nodejitsu.com, wondering what their node.js hosting prices are – but viewing the page on my iPhone, I was simply told “sorry, we do not support mobile browsers yet”. No tagsoup for you!

    Viewing the site in Opera Mini was even worse: “Browser not supported”, with download links to Firefox, Opera(!), Safari and Chrome. Now, a little glitch, something not quite rendering as intended, I could understand – but a no-mobile, approved browsers only policy in this decade must surely be some sort of parody.

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

      On content websites there’s little excuse for not supporting all browsing devices. iOS Safari is essentially the same as the desktop version and Opera Mini does very good job of refactoring a content for smaller screens.

      We seem to be returning to the bad old days of “best viewed with”.

  • Alex Rodriguez

    I like the approach of the HTML5 Boilerplate. It politely suggests installing Chrome Frame for IE, or to install Firefox/Chrome/Opera/etc.

  • http://dustinsnider.com Dustin Snider

    As a web developer I strongly agree with my the IE Tax that companies have been adding. I recommend all websites shut the doors to IE 6 and force them to upgrade. About 6 months ago while I was developing a project I had hit my due date with tons of issues in IE 6 and 7 so what I did was completely shut the site down to them. I simply redirected them to a Google Chrome download page with a message. I never got any complaints because most of the people who use IE 6 & 7 know that there browser is out of date.

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

      You never got any complaints because IE6/7 users couldn’t access your website and find your contact details!

  • itmitică

    If the client would specifically ask for IE7 support, I would.

    If not, I’m pretty sure the websites I make are usable to some degree in IE7.

    It’s business, nothing more. It’s not stunts, but I agree Kogan saw an opportunity for that.

    A basic webdev package starts from a design supporting current trending browsers, and IE7 is far from being a current trending browser.

    For this kind of special request, like exactly the same functionality in older browsers like IE7, there is an added cost, much like for any other extra feature, for very old or for very new.

  • Matthew P

    This is almost definitely a bad idea for most companies to go ahead with just like Kogan, though I hope developers give some good and honest thought to the issue of browser support since I definitely think there are solid arguments for both sides with reasonable circumstances where each conflicting paradigm makes good sense.

    It’s a romantic ideal to aim for that the web should be a perfectly open and free place where everyone has the maximum choices possible with regards to software and hardware selection, but at the end of the day developers and site owners are the ones who have to reconcile the difficulties and costs associated with that freedom while traditionally users are blissfully unaware of the impact of their choices or in some cases even that they have a choice. At the very least keeping the user perfectly sheltered from such considerations is certainly a bad idea, there should be some reasonable effort to inform and motivate users to stay up to date if possible. What is the downside of having more informed users?

    The browser support issue is also just one aspect of the user experience and potential stipulations on choice. There are limitations and restrictions for payment methods, shipping destinations and such for e-commerce sites. There are terms of use restrictions and legal limitations for many services – Is it also reasonable to say that just because it may be possible and even practical to lessen restrictions and increase user freedom in these areas that every site has an obligation to do so? After all there really isn’t much difference between a site that a user can’t access versus a service that excludes them due to it’s limitations. It’s important to remember that sites are someone’s property and sometimes their business as well – If nothing else sometimes the choices offered to customers and users are simply a result of the choices the site owner makes on how they choose to do business – They could ship internationally or accept another credit card by passing on the expense to users opting for those services, but perhaps they don’t want the extra headache and wish to do business in a way they can enjoy. Browser support could be viewed in much the same way, after all site owner is a client and a user as well – their preferences and needs should also matter and be taken into consideration.

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

      Educating users is fine. Forcing your chosen software on them is not. This is little different to the irritating “best viewed with” notices which died over a decade ago. Ultimately, the cost in making an IE7-compatible content or ecommerce site is negligible. It’s only when you try to make it look identical to other browsers that you’ll encounter a problem.

  • Mike Schinkel

    It seems that this is being viewed as an ideological issue rather than as a pragmatic one, i.e. that users for some reason have a “right” to browse Kogan’s store. In many ways this is similar to a grocery company choosing not to build another store in an area where the costs to build are high and there are not a lot of prospective customers.

    This should be about a simple cost-benefit analysis weighed by the potential downside of too much negative PR and/or damage to their reputation in the eyes of those customers, not a religious war. The world is not going to take a collection to cover their costs for supporting IE, why then are they obligated to spend the money to support IE without an associated return?

    If this were a government site it would be different argument, but it’s not.

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

      How do you calculate an IE7 tax? Quite simply, you can’t. Even if you know how many IE7 users you get now, they won’t use the browser or your store if they have to pay extra. Therefore, your IE7 users fall to zero. So why have you spent time and money bothering to support it?!!

  • Kise S.

    while i hate IE6/7, its kinda stupid to ask user who is whiling to pay you that he has to be extra because of the problem, instead directing them and telling them that their browser is outdated and insecure and offering them information about why do they need to upgrade is better

  • Van Luu

    If Amazon and Ebay do this. They will lose many customers. However, we will not have to waste so much times for these “antique browsers” in the near future. What a great idea! haha

  • gofry

    Just as customer has a right to choose where s/he buys, the store has a right to refuse to sell to whoever the owner chooses. If s/he refuses to sell to customers using IE7 that fine. Just as customers should have a freedom of choice so should store owners.

    Freedom of choice is not about having many options. It’s all about being able to decide if I want to use some service or not.

  • http://keithpickering.zxq.net Keith Pickering

    People who use outdated and insecure browsers are not in any way entitled to view the modern internet in all its glory. With so many free, standards-compliant browsers available, the only excuse for using IE6 or 7 is pure ignorance. And why do we dumb down our code for people like this? Why do we appease and baby them rather than encouraging them to understand the machine they’re operating?

    IE6 and IE7 are done. They’ve said their last goodbyes, and the only way to make the last of their users upgrade is to penalize them. Make it obvious that the internet is harder to use with an old browser, and then maybe they’ll finally make the switch. If we keep putting hundreds of hours into making our sites display pixel-perfect on every ten-year-old browser, the people using them will have no reason to use anything else.

    I’m not a fan of completely blocking access to a site for certain users (that’s just bad business), but I have absolutely no concern over how my sites look to people using ancient pieces of software.

    We don’t still release movies on VHS…why? Because there’s something better now. I’m sure people who still had VCRs were pretty peeved when DVDs started becoming mainstream, but they weren’t sympathized with. They gave in and bought a DVD player. If we’d have kept releasing VHS tapes, we’d probably STILL be doing so. People shouldn’t be rewarded for using outdated technology. They should be forced to face the consequences head on, because that’s how they learn. People aren’t stupid, they just need a good shove in the right direction.

    Call me a bad web developer, but it is not my job to spend all my time making my site accessible to the twelve people who still use IE7.

  • Greg

    Whats more concerning to me is splintering of the market, developing for 4 or 5 browsers is fine, but Microsoft itself is starting a disturbing trend. When IE9 was released, they announced it would be supported until 2020. Can imagine how outdated it will be at such a time? And now that Microsoft seems to be finally speeding up its release cycle, but still sticking to this archaic long term support system, it will only get worse. By 2020, there could be 7 or more versions of IE to support, in addition to the 3 or 4 other browsers. Chrome is the best example where browser development should be going. In Chrome, version numbers are irrelevant; you make a site, but it keeps working as Chrome keeps improving – the old features don’t break, but the new ones are there. Chrome is on the cutting edge, but Firefox’s approach is also good because it allows constant updates, but also allows more slowly paced users to upgrade on more long term basis. But Micorsoft’s approach is just awful. They are still introducing their own properties and non standards compliant implementations, and still pushing the idea of major releases, which break old things when adopted and discourage upgrading. The core problem of Microsoft approach is that they are trying to apply their Windows strategy to the web. Big releases with big changes, along with big profits. But it doesn’t work that way on the internet. The net is about streamline, the web is constantly changing and evolving, in a sense living. Microsoft’s approach is like trying to put a hard shell on the web that it will quickly outgrow, but that still tries to cling on. Chrome is like have a skin that grows with the web, that does not get old and need to discarded like every version of Internet Explorer does, creating an increasingly painful process with each iteration.