Is IE6 dead?

.net campaign to bring down IE 6

.net campaign to "Bring Down IE 6"

There has been much debate in recent weeks about the death knells of Internet Explorer 6; particularly since .net magazine ran an article in its February 2009 issue (http://www.netmag.co.uk/zine/discover-culture/calling-time-on-ie6 ), which has been supported by some designers.

IE6 is well known for its quirky interpretation of web standards and for requiring significant code hacks to enable web sites to appear as they should. I remember in the Dark Ages of the internet, when Microsoft and Netscape were battling for browser supremacy, that designers started putting “This web site is best viewed in Internet Explorer [or Netscape Navigator]” messages on their sites. At the time there were only a fraction of the people online compared to today, and the internet was not a commercial entity in the way it is today. The decision by Microsoft to gallop headlong into the distance when everyone else was going in another direction has led many designers to pull out what little hair they had left and throw their arms up in despair for many years. I, like most web designers, keenly await the day we can finally bury IE6 for good. However, frustrating and annoying as IE6 is for designers, a word of caution needs to be sounded before ditching the browser from design considerations.

It is important for designers to remember that they do not make browsers; they make web sites for visitors to view in the browser of their choice: a browser is a user-defined tool over which the designer has no control. In the same way, a designer has no control over whether or not JavaScript is enabled on the computer a visitor is using. To say, therefore, that you are not considering IE6 in the design of your client’s site is effectively saying that you are willing to turn a proportion of your client’s customers away.

It is indeed fortunate that more recent browsers have been more closely aligned to web standards and the trend appears to be towards meeting the standards rather than creating their own. Even Microsoft appears to have seen the light with IE7 and 8. So, the question is whether or not IE6 is obsolete now that there are alternatives and updates to preferred browsers available.

On the face of it, this is a compelling argument as IE6 users have diminished in number, seemingly moving to IE7, IE8, or one of the other browsers, such as Firefox, Opera, etc. However, there is a core of users who still rigidly seem to be sticking with IE6 and it might be worth considering who these people are.

Traditionally, they are thought to be dullards who can’t or won’t update their browsers and who need to be forced to do so. Looking at the statistics available from W3Schools, there is a sharp move away from IE6 over the last twelve months: in April 2008, over 29% of visitors used the browser; in April 2009 this figure was 15%. This downward trend can be rationalised by the increases in Firefox, Safari, Opera, Chrome and IE8.

Table of browser usage for 2008 - 2009 from W3C Schools

Browser usage 2008/2009 by W3C Schools

Market Share shows a similar tale. In June 2008, IE6 controlled approximately 26% of the traffic. By April 2009, the proportion dropped to 18%. Again, this trend can be attributed to the massive growth in popularity of Firefox, the growth of Safari and the release of IE8.

Browser trends graph and table by Market Share

Browser trends by Market Share

While these figures are often disputed because they rely on site traffic to the sites that publish the results, what cannot be denied is the continuing popularity of the old browser, IE6 still commands about 15 – 20% of the market share.

But why might this be the case? Are up to 20% of internet users dullards? Of course not. Many of the continuing users of IE6 are large corporate enterprises who deliberately wait before upgrading, to make sure that the latest versions of operating systems and software applications (especially Microsoft) work and are reliable before upgrading themselves. Ending consideration of IE6 at this stage could alienate a large proportion of sizeable corporate clients.

Designers should be led by what the users of their clients’ web sites need. If the client has a large number of corporate customers, chances are that some of them will still be using IE6. Similar chances exist for a large proportion of general users, who are not necessarily technologically clued-up, or might not know how to upgrade (or change) their browser.

It is not the designer’s responsibility to dictate who can view their clients’ web sites. That is a decision that rightly can only be made by the client. However, the designer’s responsibility is to help their clients to reach an informed decision by explaining the problems of IE6, identifying the relevant user statistics for the site (or general stats for new sites), identifying trends over time and demonstrating the pitfalls of not including IE6 as a supported browser.

Taking the statistics from my own site, IE6 accounts for just over 20% of visits in the last year to April. Amazingly, there were even some users still clinging on to IE5.5! However, over the last six months, the trend has completely changed. No-one now is using IE5.5 and IE6 has fallen to 9% of visitors. Firefox has actually overtaken IE as the browser of choice with over 45% market share, compared to IE’s market share of 37%.

Redcentaur's own user analysis

Share of visitors to Redcentaur using IE 6

What this shows me is that if I suddenly switched off support for IE6 now, I would alienate 9% of my visitors. This is something I am not prepared to do as that is equivalent to saying that 9% of my customers are not valued.

The key is for the designer not to unnecessarily alienate a proportion of potential customers for their clients. If it is clear from research specific to the site being designed, that a proportion of visitors are using earlier versions of browsers, then as a designer it is your responsibility to include them in the design of the site.

Clearly, this will require a discussion with your client, where the pros and cons of including IE6 and other browsers are identified. This will also involve a discussion about the additional cost of hacking the site for IE6, which should be costs included in the estimate you provide your client. It is your clients’ decision whether or not to include IE6 within the design – afterall, it is their site, they are their customers and it is their risk.

Personally, I would prefer not to start seeing sites saying “This site is best viewed in Firefox 3.2”. It is really not a professional image to portray for your design or for your clients’ corporate web site.