Happy 10th Birthday IE6!

Craig Buckler

I realize few of you will want to celebrate, but IE6 is ten years old today. I’m sure the original developers never thought it would reach double figures when the final version was released on August 27, 2001.

Ten years is an astonishing achievement for any piece of software — especially when you consider the web itself is just 20 years old. Even today, more than 1 in 30 people still use the aging browser.

Despite numerous awards for “worst tech product of all time” and “least secure software on the planet”, IE6 was an excellent browser in 2001. It gave us:

  • improved CSS (and fixed IE5’s incorrect box model)
  • DOM level 1
  • a good XML API
  • a sleek, fast interface
  • a useful IE Administration Kit for fast deployment within organizations.

It killed Netscape 4.0 and the Mozilla Suite. There were a number of court cases but, quite frankly, those browsers deserved a quick and painful death. Be thankful you don’t have to support them today.

Where did it all go wrong?

Microsoft won the browser war and, by 2001, IE was used by more than 95% of web users.

Few people considered web applications to be a viable alternative to the desktop and Microsoft backed “Smart Clients”; Windows-based programs with good interfaces and the benefits of internet communication. It was a logical decision which could only strengthen Windows’ domination of the OS market. Microsoft announced IE6 would be their last standalone browser and the development team was disbanded.

Then Web2.0 appeared. Ajax was the primary “technology” underpinning Web2.0 and, ironically, it was only possible thanks to a little-known XMLHttpRequest object Microsoft introduced in IE5.0.

At the same time, Mozilla finally delivered a capable browser which was free from legacy Netscape code and a serious threat to IE. Firefox adhered to web standards and offered tools which allowed developers to create complex web applications.

It quickly became apparent that IE was lagging behind and holding back web development. Microsoft took a couple of years to realize their mistake and release IE7. It had better standards support but broke many of the web applications written during IE6’s 5 year-long reign. Many companies found they couldn’t upgrade.

Is IE6 really so bad?

IE6-bashing is easy — Microsoft do it themselves. That said, some web developers protest a little too much: berating IE6 is far easier than “fixing” code. The majority of IE6 issues are well understood and have documented workarounds. Assuming you test early and test often, it’s still possible to support IE6 ten years after its birth (as long as you forget futile attempts at pixel perfection).

The question is: should you support IE6?

For most sites, there are few commercial reasons to justify spending a disproportionate amount of development time on a minority group of users using antiquated software and questionable IT skills. The situation may be different if you’re working for a large corporation or government department but, if you don’t like it, there’s an easy solution to that problem…

Personally, IE6 has brought me pain but I’m ancient enough to have used it from the start and understand its quirky behavior. The development hurdles have also been partially offset by the profits — I still make money fixing IE6 issues! It was my default browser for several years and I still prefer it to the abomination that was IE7.

So, happy tenth birthday IE6. It’s time to retire forever.

Will you be celebrating?