The Slow Lingering Death of IE6

Craig Buckler

Rest In Peace IE6Internet Explorer 6.0 was released on 27 August 2001. In 2003, IE usage peaked at 95% of the market; a figure that is unlikely to be matched by any browser ever again. Microsoft had successfully created their own browser monopoly.

The situation attracted some adverse publicity. It resulted in the famous US Department of Justice court case against Microsoft and the company was accused of abusing their position. However, whatever your opinion of Microsoft’s business practices, the success of IE6 was largely because:

  • It was free. Unlike the early software produced by Netscape and Opera, IE did not cost a penny.
  • It was bundled with Windows. Users received the browser whether they wanted it or not.
  • It was tightly integrated with the operating system. Users could not uninstall IE and developers were able to utilise the web rendering engine and communication libraries within their desktop applications.
  • The competition was sparse. Although Mozilla and Netscape released competing browsers, the early versions were bloated and buggy.
  • IE6 was fast, stable, and the best browser available.

The situation also benefited web developers since there was little need to develop or test code in multiple browsers. Who cared about W3C standards when IE6 was the standard? Microsoft announced that IE6 would be the last standalone browser they ever produced.

The release of Mozilla Firefox at the end of 2004 changed the game. The browser was far superior to IE and was open source; Mozilla had few commercial pressures and could not be bought or shut down by Microsoft. Users switched in droves and, more recently, Apple and Google were encouraged to enter the market. IE’s domination was over.

Microsoft were forced to act and released IE7 in October 2006. IE8 is due shortly and web developers are praying it will be the final nail in IE6’s coffin. Supporting IE6 is a major headache but, eight years after its initial release, one in five people continue to use the browser (a similar proportion to Firefox users).

IE6’s death has been agonizingly slow for several reasons:

  1. IE7 and IE8 can only be installed on Windows XP SP2+ or Vista. Many people continue to use older versions of Windows or avoid automatic updates.
  2. Many large corporations have legacy applications that only support IE6. Upgrading these systems incurs significant costs which may not be justifiable – especially in the current economic climate. As a result, their employees have been unable to switch to alternative browsers.
  3. Many IT novices are ignorant of what a browser is, how to upgrade, or why they should.
  4. Some users simply prefer IE6 to IE7 and the competing browsers.

IE7 adoption has possibly reached saturation point. Although IE7 users are likely to upgrade to IE8, its release may not have a significant impact on existing IE6 users. Whilst there are several high-profile internet campaigns to eradicate IE6, its demise is occurring at a frustratingly sedate pace.

The browser will die naturally as legacy systems are fixed and people migrate to more recent versions of Windows (or Mac/Linux), but celebrations of IE6’s final breaths are likely to be several years premature. Unfortunately, few web developers will be in the position to drop support for the browser for some time to come.

Do you or your clients continue to use IE6? Do you have plans to upgrade to IE8 when it is released? Are you doing anything to persuade users to abandon an eight year-old browser that causes developers so much frustration?