Why the Call For Browser Upgrades Will Never End

By Craig Buckler
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calls to upgradeWeb developers are rarely happy. We’re big critics of our own work, even bigger critics of others, and are never satisfied with the tools we have for the job.

Browsers are our biggest bugbear. People never use the right browser and are reluctant to upgrade even if it’s for their own benefit. How can we be expected to move the Web forward when so many users are stuck in the past?

Internet Explorer 6.0 is the bane of the web developer’s life. The application is still used nine years after its introduction in spite of two more recent editions. Why should we struggle for the sake of a few misguided individuals and companies?

Here’s the thing: it’s partly our fault. We sold the idea of web applications on the basis that they’d solve the distribution and management problems associated with desktop programs. Workers could use a browser and never need any more software or upgrades. Unfortunately, we often neglected to mention that the browser itself would always need updating. That may be easy for us, but novices are less savvy and it’s a major headache for companies with thousands of desktops to support.

The IE6 problem was partially caused by our own laziness. We took shortcuts. We concentrated on the interesting stuff and avoided the mundane. We wrote applications that worked great in IE6 but failed in all subsequent browsers.

I’m sure you’re thinking … ah, but IE6 is different; Microsoft’s dominance and lethargy caused many of the problems we encounter today. IE6-only applications were written because IE6 was the only browser. That’s true, but the same problems can arise in other situations.

Consider web standards. Just as you think vendors are moving toward a common goal, they start disagreeing and implement their own ideas. There’s already browser divergence with technologies such as HTML5, CSS animation, video formats, and offline functionality. In another few years, could developers be bemoaning Firefox’s lack of support for X or Chrome’s poor handling of Y?

So will the end of IE6 make you, me, and everyone else happy? Ten years ago we were calling for Netscape 4 to die (if you thought IE6 was bad, NS4 would have appalled you!). IE6’s death may be imminent, but will we then start demonizing other browsers?

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  • matt5409

    The blame lies firmly with Microsoft. Every other browser prompts the user to upgrade when a new version is released.

    In an ideal world browsers will update automatically, with only their core being affected. The dumbfounded user wouldn’t even know about it and the big, lazy companies wouldn’t need to worry about getting their IT staff to actually do some work.

    As devs we make a song and dance about ANY new product released, but we’re always looking forward and such is the nature of the industry things become redundant very quickly. We know this. The consumer isn’t expected to know this, but Microsoft should have.

  • Paul Annesley

    Healthy competition between browser vendors is a great thing for moving the web forwards – I’m sure IE6 deserves credit for that in its time, even if for nothing else.

    But to prevent a repeat of the IE6 hangover, that healthy competition needs to be reflected by market share. If 90% of users are spread across three different browsers, any competent web developer or manager will recognise that the points that those browsers differ on must be accommodated.

    Combined with cross-browser abstractions – jQuery etc – and things really don’t look so grim for the future.

    I’m optimistic.

  • madr

    Lately I’ve worked with html emails (yes, my employer by laziness continues to sell those rather than arguing against it) and mobile designs (IEm, RIM Blackberry, Android, Symbian S60, SE Uiq).

    Trust when I say IE6 is a bliss in comparison. People who’s biggest problem is CSS-bugs in IE are the lucky ones.

    So no, I will never stop being bitter. Stop Being bitter is the same as stop loving and caring IMHO.

    I love my work and wouldn’tr trade it for anything.

  • The situation is definitely better and standards support is far superior. But consider HTML5. Most developers would love to use it, but the level of browser support is far too varied and inconsistent. Progressive enhancement techniques will help, but few developers practice them.

    I feel optimistic too. But I was 10 years ago as well?…

  • People will always find things to complain about, however, IE6, like NS4 before it, was excellent when it first came out, but is now a very buggy lowest common denominator for support of Web Standards.

    Right now I’m not sure whether I find IE6 or IE7 more annoying. They both cause headaches for many developers. I wonder why so many people try to get IE6 users to upgrade when concentrating more of our efforts on getting IE7 users to upgrade might be more fruitful.

  • @matt5409

    The blame lies firmly with Microsoft. Every other browser prompts the user to upgrade when a new version is released.

    To be fair, Microsoft do offer upgrade prompts. Back in the late 90’s there was a rapid progression from IE2 to IE6 without automatic installs. A higher proportion of web users were technically-minded, but I don’t think that’s the only reason.

    If you can blame MS for anything, it was that they abandoned the browser. I don’t think it was for malicious intent – they believed the browser didn’t offer a good enough UI for complex internet applications.

    But even after the historical lesson of IE6, we still see developers building for one or two browsers rather than building for the web. Until that attitude changes, the browser vendors will have too much control.

  • There is already browser divergence with technologies such as HTML5, CSS animation, video formats, and offline functionality.

    There’s certainly divergence on video for now, but I’m hopeful we’ll see a resolution on that sooner rather than later.

    But as for CSS animations (and indeed, other new CSS properties), so far all of the browsers have been very good in only implementing new features with proprietary prefixes until there is a standard; so while the new features exist, they’re clearly marked as not intended for mainstream use yet. AFAIK there are no major cross-browser differences in any non-prefixed CSS properties in modern browsers.

  • @stopsatgreen
    Microsoft haven’t announced HTML5 support yet. There’s a suspicion they will shortly, but who knows how long it could take?

    Bespoke CSS properties are mostly OK because the content remains readable; the browser won’t render an effect it doesn’t understand. However, it rarely stops us complaining about IE not supporting various CSS properties.


    I’m not sure whether I find IE6 or IE7 more annoying

    I totally agree! IE7 often attempts to do something and fails. Unfortunately, MS also fixed many of the hacks developers relied on in IE6 (* html, !important override, etc) so it can be tricky to support IE7 without browser-specific CSS.


    Trust when I say IE6 is a bliss in comparison [to HTML email]

    I feel your pain. I tried it a few months ago and it was like returning to 1998. I’d forgotten just how many table tags and properties there are!

  • brankito

    programmers and designers should stop their intentions on making their code work with incompetent browsers like IE, so the people who really want to see the benefits of what web is today will do their job on replacing bad habits and changing their browser, people who dont see that they should change the browser are people who in general dont care about any type of progress so why would you make code work for them, let them see ordinary white page with black text on it.
    that way programmers wont be frustrated anymore resolving never ending issues with css and other IE incompatibility and not following standards.
    i say, not all of people want to progress and learn so why would other waste their energy on trying to please them.
    make web a comfortable place for those who want that, and they will change from IE to FF (just example) without you even telling them to do that. so in future, when i make web page it will be a notepad like for IE, and real stuff for compatible and modern browsers.

  • W2ttsy

    When I was lucky enough to do some nice HTML email layouts one thought crossed my mind, mid 90s adult websites where images were sliced into random sizes and mixed with a tag soup of tds and image maps…

    The real problem IE users have is “how long is a piece of string”. Once IE6 is out of the way, how long will it take to get the slightly less buggy IE7 to follow suit? Even IE8 still has plenty of problems that make building apps a pain. Until IE can get on the same rendering page as webkit/gecko, I doubt there will be peace in the web dev world.

    When I am working on a site now, I can be guaranteed to have it render 99% the same way in Firefox as in Chrome/Safari. Then I open in IE and bam, fixes are needed.

    The biggest stumbling blocks in my mind are:

    MS has a big task ahead of them convincing users that an upgrade is worth it. Why should users move from one crappy product to a slightly less crappy product;
    Removing the MS Genuine Advantage blocks on upgrades to IE7/IE8 for those users running illegal pirates of Windows
    Concentrate less on features and more on tightening up their current offerings. IE8 needs less anti phishing warnings and more bug fixes and closing off these security holes.

    Why is it that mozilla foundation (an open source group) is able to release a new browser revision every 3 – 6 months but the biggest software house in the world can barely manage 2 – 3 year cycles? Redmond needs to fire alot of their time wasting devs and management team i think…

  • Justen

    Yes, upgrading system software to new versions is a necessity. This is common sense. Only on the web is this question ever even brought up. I challenge you to find an office somewhere that demands all documents in Office ’98 compatible formats that gets *any* business. Go out and find a hardware manufacturer for me who still writes drivers for Windows 98. Find the graphic artist who’s using Photoshop 4, or the animator who can only work with 3d Studio Max 2.0 files. Find the antivirus company who still supplies definition updates for their first software versions.

    These are all rough time equivalents for asking web developers to support IE6. Someday, we will drop support entirely for Firefox 3.5 and Safari 4 and IE8 too. This is normal. This is okay. Hell, these are free softwares that take a few minutes to download and install and yet they’re the only software category that seems to generate a nonstop argument about upgrading. It boggles my mind.

  • Garison

    You can blame the browser developers all you want, but that’s not where the problem lies.

    Personally, I blame the people writing the standards. They create a new HTML or CSS standard and say, “Here you go; have at it,” instead of correctly saying, “Here’s your new standard … and here’s the code that implements it.”

    It makes no sense to design any kind of complex standard, and then to expect developers to get it right. If you want something done correctly, you have to do it yourself; the people writing the standards shold also write the implementation code.

  • Daz

    Speaking as a user (I’ve recently started learning a bit about page design but predominantly I’m still a user), I think what M/S need to look at if they want people to upgrade is the sheer screen-bulk of IE. With 6 and previous you could ‘slim it down’ by dragging the toolbars into one or two bars, saving real-estate for the content. With 7 they stopped that, and the only way to get down to two bars is to hide the menu bar and use alt+whatever when you need it – a pain if you’re browsing ’cause you’re probably having to shift from mouse to keyboard and back. 8 is so much worse from that perspective that I just won’t use the damn thing, and I suspect I’m not alone. (I use FF as default anyway, IE is a backup for sites that only work on IE.)
    Most people don’t know anything about the code that makes a page, and which browsers render it in such-and-such a way, but they do know that they want a browser whose visible features can be customised to suit, and that doesn’t take up half the screen with space-wasting gimmickry. Maybe the way forward is to bug M/S into putting the usability back into later versions. Whether they’d listen or not is another question…

  • codamedia

    The problem with any version of IE has little to do with the browser itself, it is that it is so tightly integrated with the Operating System. This makes upgraging IE a large and scary job for IT departments everywhere. You are not just updating one program, it can have an affect on the entire OS as well as many programs.

    Firefox, Safari, Opera, Chrome, etc… take moments to upgrade, and have no effect on any other program on the system. IE must move back to a stand alone product.

    My biggest complaint as a developer is blatant diregard for standards. Microsoft again is the biggest culprit. Standards are standards, and browsers should follow them. HTML, CSS and JavaScript specs should be the same in every browser! If they want a competitive edge, then do so by adding an extra feature or two – but don’t screw with the standards. Pages will at least look the same (or very similar) in each browser.

    IE’s old table Margin/Padding difference is a prime example. They just couldn’t play by the standards, and made developers write separate style sheets for the most basic of elements.

  • Anonymous

    It boggles my mind to. Every time I develop a new site and have to spend many extra hours, trying to make it look decent in IE 6. I wich I could bill microsoft, because I feel I have worked to many extra hours just for them. Point made, I think that as much as I would like to say “no more IE 6”, it’s really hard to tell clients this. However, it has to be done. It is part of us, us the design/development community to educate our clients, our bosses and so forth. Yes, will probably be “bitching” about some other old browser in the future, the thing is that we are the future of IE 6 and it’s time to take some action.

  • There will always be a browser that is on the bottom rung, and that browser will always attract some frustration from developers who want to do more.

    However I think that the design principles that drove the development of IE6 (and Netscape 4 to some extent) made it a special case.

    Microsoft simply made a conscious business decision to ignore agreed upon standards in favour of accomplishing other business goals. At the time they had 95% market share, and it just didn’t matter.

    Microsoft’s spectacularly death-defying dive in market share is proof-positive you can’t do that anymore. People walk and never look back as soon as there is a viable alternative. Only a fool believes that alternative won’t come along some day.

    And yes, Mr Jobs, I’m looking at you..

  • If you are trying to push the edge of technology with new features, then modern browsers become a requirement. Older browsers also pose a big maintenance issue when doing design.. so I guess we will also be asking for older browsers to be abandoned.

  • I’ve made a lot of money supporting old-school browsers. Fin.

  • Justen

    @Chris Ward: I’ve saved clients a lot of money not supporting them (or giving them viable progressive enhancement that leaves the old browsers functional). Either way works, I’m getting paid for my time.

  • Lee

    Surely this problem is going to exist as long as Microsoft keep abandoning upgrade support on older operating systems. In a few years time i’m sure we’ll say the same about people stuck on ie7/8 on Windows XP. Shouldn’t the rendering engine be something that is constantly updated regardless of the operating system.

  • I’m with AlexW on this. IE6 was a special case. I still recall quite vividly the madness of the browser wars when we had to deal with variants of NS4/5/6 as well as variants of IE. At the time when it was released, IE6 was a breath of fresh air. Of course that became a trap that we’re still trying to escape from.

    I think there’s good news on the IE6 horizon though. I just checked some websites I manage that have a large enough audience to provide some spread in the results and I found that out of eight sites that see on average 100 visits per day 7.5% of the visitors use IE6 which is down from about 13% last time I checked a few months ago.

  • @Lee:
    If people want to stick to IE8, I think it will be OK. I can write html/css that works in Opera, FF, Safari, Chrome, and IE8 without need for any acrobatics. I think this is because during the long time between browser versions (IE6 -> IE7), MS began recognizing the importance of web standards. IE7 still has a few quirks but IE8 has to date caused me no complaints.

  • Justen

    @Lee: Do you expect the parts from your 2010 model car to work in your 1983 model? I don’t.

  • Lee

    @awasson and @Justen. IE6 seemed fine aswell when it came out but now we have transparent pngs and other goodies that IE6 doesn’t support and it makes it a struggle supporting the browser when it has such a large market share (the difference with the car model comparison).

    With IE9 we will get HTML5, CSS3 etc. Developers wishing to use these will have to wait for a good share of people to upgrade to IE9 (or leave IE6/7/8) before they even consider making use of them. Nowadays people are also less reluctant to upgrade their operating systems.

  • @Lee: Not so fast… It has nothing to do with when IE6 was released. We had transparent PNG’s and Standards back when IE6 appeared on the scene too. None of that has changed. As a matter of fact IE6 does support PNG transparencies but it’s done through the MS only CSS extension filter:progid:DXImageTransform.Microsoft.AlphaImageLoader() which makes a mess of a valid stylesheet so we often conditinal comment in pngfix.js to make it work.

    In fact at that time Netscape 6 was a much more competent browser than IE6 when it came to standards and file formats however due to Netscape 5’s failure to launch and IE5.5 and IE6’s successes over NS4.xx and NS5, NS6 never had a chance.

    The major difference is Microsoft’s intentions with their browsers. When IE6 was released MS was interested in browser dominance which was tied to connecting the browser to the Windows desktop through browser extensions coupling IE to MS Office productivity suites and tools. They achieved that goal unfortunately and many intranets only run IE6.

    I’m not sure what Microsoft’s browser goals are now but at the moment they are supporting web standards and IE9 is supposed to follow that course, supporting HTML5, CSS3 (not quite there yet) but give it time.

    Now as far as HTML5 goes, it is still a working draft that none of the browsers fully support so it’s a bit difficult to blame anyone for not having a browser that supports it.

  • Justen

    @awasson: half-assed support for PNG in marginal circumstances doesn’t really qualify. You get no PNG8+alpha, no PNG+alpha background-images, and quite a lot of the rest of the spec doesn’t work, rendering it ineffectual and mostly useless. Not even pngfix.js can untangle that mess.

  • @Justen: That’s my point…

    IE6 wasn’t/isn’t a problem because it came out before web standards or transparent PNG’s became available… It’s a problem because the team that produced it ignored standards, focused on extensions to MS Office and provided screwy support for PNG’s and other formats.

    The new IE focus seems to be more consistent with the rest of the browser world.

  • Lee


    IE9 and perhaps IE8 might support standards but the older versions didn’t. Maybe in 10 years time this won’t be an issue at all but it’s an absolute pain having to develop websites for IE6 at the moment. IE7 and IE8 have a few little quirks too. I develop my websites to standards but increasingly it is becoming harder to develop in IE6 as i make more use of the features that get added in later versions. This problem will maintain unless there was an easy way for the browser to update it’s rendering engine. If you’re then worried about breaking existing sites then we could add a meta tag saying which version of the rendering engine we were targeting when we built the site.

  • Not even pngfix.js can untangle that mess.

    Which pngfix.js script do you guys mean? Unit? Supersleight?

    Anyway, I’ve found a better alternative that I talk about here:
    PNG Images, Partial Transparency, and IE

  • I develop my websites to standards but increasingly it is becoming harder to develop in IE6 as i make more use of the features that get added in later versions.

    I’m with you there… I’m in the same boat. I’ve got no problem supporting IE7/8 and the usual suspects (Opera, FF, Safari, etc…) but IE6 really puts a damper on the party when you start pushing the limits.

  • @Kravvits,
    Interesting article…. I switched to DD_belatedPNG.fix() a while back too. It never lets me down : )

  • Justen

    To be honest I can’t remember offhand which pngfix I’m using, it’s probably supersleight. Thanks for the link re: VML performance, that’s a handy bit of information. None of this solves the problem of transparency in background-images though, which is where I most desperately would like it solved. You show me the clever hack that fixes that and I’ll show you a very happy developer :) Though at this point I’m beyond the “it must look identical in all browsers” paradigm. IE6 just does not get some of the pretty stuff from me anymore, it’s not worth bringing down the average.

  • @Justen,
    Use DD_belatedPNG.fix()…. It solves the background image issue and is the reason I switched to it. I’ve got several sites with multi-layered transparencies and semi-opaque layers. It does the job for me.

  • Justen

    Nice! Thanks for the info :)

  • Less of the “we” mate, you speak for yourself – I’m not trying to sell anyone on the idea of web applications, and I still think they’re essentially a bad idea; and I never made anything IE-only, even when it was a near monopoly :-p

    You’re right though – we’ll always want slightly better than what we have now. Human nature is to blame.