Dropping IE6 support: what took so long?

There's one person who could speed up the process

Dan Oliver

From March, you could add Google to the list of companies that will be ditching support for Microsoft's antiquated web browser IE6 (support will gradually be phased out over a number of months). Naturally, you knew this already, but isn't it great news?! Just ... well ... great.

Since this epochal announcement from everyone's favourite 'definitively not evil' search engine, most of the people working in the web industry have taken on the form of geeky Munchkins, belting out choruses of 'Ding-dong! The witch is dead!'. The tech media, too.

Actually, it went beyond tech. It went MAINSTREAM! So, I have to ask myself: why am I constantly spitting out profanities under my breath whenever someone asks whether I've heard the 'big news' about Google and IE6?

And why have I been intentionally avoiding the calls of lazy journalists who think it's OK to get quotes from other journalists when a big story breaks? (Actually, I should ignore those all the time.)

Heck! I should be happy that we're finally at a point where a combination of increasing web literacy and media coverage is seeing IE6's market share drop quicker than ever, and – in the process – helping to promote web standards. But all I'm left thinking is this: 'What took you so freaking long?!'

Long time flawed

Security flaws in IE6 aren't a new thing; lack of standards support in IE6 isn't a new thing. So what have you been doing with your time? And I'm not just posing this question to companies: I'm posing it to the self-same tech reporters who have – now Google says it's OK – finally decided to put their collective boot into IE6. In fact, I blame these people more than Microsoft.

Other than the developer community, and some select journalists, groups, and publications, where has the pressure been coming from?

Those working within Microsoft have been all-too-aware of the shortcomings of IE6, but also had major clients still relying on that browser within their organisations. All a bit Catch-22, and – with no concerted pressure – it was an issue that probably wasn't going to push itself to the front of Microsoft's web strategy.

According to figures from the British Population Survey, 73.9 per cent of the UK's population can now get online. Many of these people don't read PC Plus, The Register, or other tech-focused magazines, so how were they going to find out which browsers they should be using?

In the last few years a number of security holes have been found in IE6 – holes that have resulted in users suffering at the hands of online scammers. But still we've had no national campaign of any note to educate people about the serious consequences of using an outdated browser. But I'm not crowing; I'm as guilty as most.

Despite pushing for the phasing out of IE6, it took .net – the magazine I edit – until last year to put together a coherent campaign to get rid of IE6. We should have done it much sooner.

As we stated within our campaign, this wasn't about being anti-Microsoft. Most people within Microsoft – and especially in the IE team – are now vocal supporters of web standards, and are well aware of the shortcomings of IE6. But Microsoft is a business, and there should have been more pressure put on it – and its clients – far earlier to make a change and spread the word about the problems that its browser faces.

Hanging grimly on

To put things into perspective, in February – despite an 11 per cent drop – IE6 still had 20 per cent share of the market! Most companies would happily settle for that amount of users in any given feld. (Incidentally, these figures are courtesy of Net Applications, and the logs for your website – depending on your demographic – could differ wildly.) That's a huge number of people still using a very antiquated piece of software.

I really hope that the events of the last few years will prevent us from making the same mistakes in the future, but my concern is that history will repeat itself, and yet again it will take years for an important message to finally filter through to those web users that don't immerse themselves in web culture (you know, the normal ones).

However, we do have one beacon of hope; there is one man who has the power to send the media machine into meltdown, and has the ear of many in our respective political parties. One man who can single-handedly force an issue into the public arena, where it can gain the necessary oxygen to help it develop from an ember to a flame.

No pressure, Mr Fry – but we're all counting on you.

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