2012: The End of… Internet Explorer 6!

Internet browsers are all the same, right?  They’re just there to help you look at web pages, so they can’t be different.  Wrong!  Although on the surface all web browsers appear to do the same thing, the reality is that under the bonnet they work in very different ways.  In this blog I’ll attempt to explain some of the myths surrounding browsers, and perhaps teach you a few handy tips along the way.

The internet has progressed a long way as a medium in a very short space of time.  Merely ten years ago, when download speeds were slow and PCs weren’t as technically advanced as they are now, most websites were text-heavy affairs that made minimal use of pictures, and practically no use of video.  

Web pages were kept simple to reflect the technical restrictions meaning there was little in the way of dynamic content to give websites that ‘wow’ factor.  Take this snapshot of the BBC homepage from January 2002 for instance:

BBC homepage 2002
(source: Internet Archive Wayback Machine)

As you can see, it’s basically lots of text and a simple grid layout.  This helped pages to load as quickly as possible but also meant that pages looked the same on different machines, regardless of the size of your screen or the make of your computer.  

Because of this, web browsers from the time didn’t need to be particularly powerful programmes with the ability to do a million different things at once – they simply needed to do the basic things quickly and efficiently.  

In 2002, the biggest names on the browser scene were Microsoft Internet Explorer 6, Netscape Navigator 5, and an offering from the internet service provider of old, AOL.  Of these, it’s pretty safe to say that the latter two are obsolete, and have been upgraded and replaced by more modern equivalents several times over.  Inexplicably however, Internet Explorer 6 (or IE6) has been clinging on to a corner of the market ever since.  But why is this a problem?

As I’ve already mentioned, the internet has come a long way since 2002.  Take one look at the latest BBC website and you’ll see what I mean:

BBC homepage 2012
(source: www.bbc.co.uk)

As you can see, it’s full of fancy animations that start when you roll your mouse over something on the screen.  It has lots of images, and video and audio streams that play at the click of a button.  It’s a long way from the static, rather dull looking affair from 2002. 

Essentially, each of these new additions, no matter how small, has been made possible through the use of a particular web technology.  You might have heard of Flash or Javascript – these are two examples of web technologies in heavy use today.  Now, in order for a web browser to correctly display Flash content or understand Javascript, it needs to be compatible with it.

So, if a web browser was made before a particular web technology was even thought of, then how will they ever work together?  Well, the only way would be to update your browser, or better still, upgrade to a newer version.  In most cases this isn’t a problem – you’ve all probably been prompted to ‘upgrade to the latest version’ numerous times whilst sat in front of your computer, and most of the time it’s a quick and painless process.  For example, Internet Explorer has now reached version 9, and anyone who has followed its development will know that this is a giant leap forward from version 6. 

Unfortunately, for one reason or another, some people are still stuck with IE6.  Quite often these are people working in an office that runs software designed solely for IE6, or perhaps even people that don’t feel comfortable with the whole upgrade process.  Obviously these users will experience compatibility issues with the latest web technologies, which will result in web pages not displaying correctly (more on this shortly), but they’ll also be experiencing much slower page-load speeds, and more worryingly there may be security issues in using outdated technology.  Microsoft has done its best over the last decade to deal with any serious issues by releasing updates on a regular basis, but this was never going to last forever and it looks like they’ve finally come to the end of their tether. 

In a statement released in December 2011, Microsoft stated: “10 years ago a browser was born. Its name was Internet Explorer 6. Now that we're in 2011, in an era of modern Web standards, it's time to say goodbye.”  This is a bold statement to make considering that at the time of its release, 8.3% of the world was still using IE6 (this has since fallen to 7.7% - source: The Internet Explorer 6 Countdown), but Microsoft has vowed to carry through its intentions by ‘silently’ upgrading users to the latest version of Internet Explorer.  

In theory, this should reduce the number of IE6 users to less than 1%, and the idea is that people won’t even notice its happening.  They’ve received criticism from some corners of the industry regarding the use of stealth tactics to make users do something they don’t want to do, but quite frankly as far as we’re concerned, it can’t happen soon enough.

From a web designer or developers point of view, IE6 has been a thorn in our side for many a year now.  It’s incompatibility with the most recent web technologies makes designing a website to look and perform as it should nigh-on impossible.  It’s not uncommon for some poor soul to spend twice the amount of time on IE6 design fixes as they did designing the whole site in the first place – thankfully these days are coming to end.

I’ll leave you with an example of how drastically different a simple image might look in IE6 when compared to a modern day web browser:

CSS3 Pig

Now as absurd as this may seem, this is actually an accurate example of why using an obsolete, ten year old web browser just simply won’t work anymore.  Thankfully, Microsoft appears to have dealt with the problem so those of you still running IE6 at home or at work should be seeing our pig in all its glory in the not too distant future.  

And if this article has encouraged you to take action sooner then why not go and download one of the most recent web browsers using the links below – you’re guaranteed to have a swifter, safer, and more productive web experience if you do.

Download Mozilla Firefox

Download Google Chrome

Download Microsoft Internet Explorer 9