The Fate of Internet Explorer 6

 

By Michael K. Campbell
Today's browser wars are nothing like the early browser wars of the mid '90s, but there are still plenty of casualties and lots of underlying uncertainty. However, there may be a bright spot on the horizon.
Current Browser Rankings
Based upon relatively recent data from Net Applications, there are really only four main browsers in the game today: Internet Explorer (IE) with roughly 66% of the market, Firefox with 22% of the market, Safari at 8% control, and Chrome with almost 2% of the market. Opera and all other browsers combined come in at only 2% of the market, even though the way that many of these browsers emulate other, better-known, user-agent strings to identify themselves might mean that they actually control a bit more of the market than is immediately obvious. But, even so, that really only leaves IE, FireFox, and Safari as the primary combatants.
Things get interesting though when you break down usage among versions of IE, especially if you start comparing those percentages against other browsers. At this point, no single browser is able to claim a true majority of Internet users. In fact, it becomes a rough-and-tumble race for supremacy. For example, IE 7 is the current, dominant, flavor of Internet Explorer - with roughly 27% market share. That puts it in roughly the same league as Firefox. Whereas IE 8, which seems to be seeing some decent yet rather slow adoption (among IE 7 users) comes in at 12%, roughly in the same league as Safari.
That leaves that ponderously old and terribly despised (by web developers at least) beast known as IE 6 still commanding roughly 20% of overall market share.
Internet Explorer 6 is Old, Beastly, and Holds the Future of the Web
IE 6 was released in August of 2001—it's now been around a little under 8 years, which is an eternity in Internet time. Yet it's still going strong with roughly 20% of the overall browser market. Of course, what's unknown is how many of those still on IE 6 are using it explicitly to maintain backward compatibility with their own internal web applications, or how many of them are either lazy users who can't be bothered to upgrade, or simply don't care about upgrading. Even though Microsoft clearly has upgrade paths for these users many haven't taken advantage of those paths (IE 7 and now IE 8) over the years.
I think it’s ironic that IE 6 users hold the key to the future of the web, at least in terms of which browsers will gain dominance. The 20% of users running IE6 today represent veterans of a browser war that was fought (and won by Microsoft) nearly a decade ago. And what these users choose as their next browser could have a big impact on which browser emerges victorious in the current skirmish we're seeing among IE, Firefox, Safari, and even Chrome.
On the one hand, if the majority of IE 6 users are just lazy or don't know how to upgrade, it's relatively safe to assume that they'll just upgrade to IE 8 as they become aware of easy upgrade options (or get new machines, though some could convert to Safari in this process). On the other hand, if the majority of these users explicitly need IE 6 to make corporate sites work correctly, then it's conceivable that many will like stay on current hardware, use IE 6 for their apps, and install Firefox or Chrome along with IE6 for any of the more modern browsing needs they may have. Either way, there's a large segment of users out there who can have a big impact on where things head in the future. As more and more pressure mounts on those users to switch or upgrade it will be interesting to see what happens, especially considering some of the recent turbulence in this arena (that has apparently been so big that it's caused Net Application Data to review their most recent numbers for a few days now).
Ditching IE 6
It's no secret, of course, that IE6 has long been viewed quite critically by web developers. In fact, it's probably safe to say that most web developers despise it. A key reason for that less than amicable sentiment is the amount of tweaking and hacking it takes to get new sites and content to work in IE 6. Or, as more than one sarcastic comment on http://www.saveie6.com/ points out, with IE6 out of the mix web developers and designers might end up going bankrupt as they'd lose half of all of their billable hours trying translate their sites and designs to render correctly on IE 6.
As a developer who has spent way too much time battling CSS hacks and other problems with sites for rendering in IE 6, I'd only be too happy if IE 6 would go away tomorrow. Sadly, it looks like that won't be the case, and I've checked browser statistics on a couple of the sites I work with over the past few months to see how soon I could begin possibly ignoring IE6 traffic. But sadly, on most of the sites I work with or maintain, IE 6 still represents 10-20% of the traffic, which is truly heartbreaking for me.
I relished a decision by YouTube to discontinue support for IE 6 relatively shortly. Even better, this news comes on the heels of other reports pointing out that other sites will be dropping support for IE6 as well.
Of course, as much as I could hope that this would trigger a cascade of other sites deciding to similarly pull support (making it easier for me to do the same), it's probably worth remembering that if the majority of IE 6 users are truly using IE 6 to explicitly maintain compatibility with their own intranet or business applications, then the content on YouTube or Digg likely isn't going to be a huge loss to these users. But we can always hope.
The Future of IE 6
What does all of this mean for web developers? Not a lot at this exact moment. Someday we might hit that bright-spot where we no longer need to waste time making sites work in IE 6. If enough sites take a cue from YouTube and Digg (and hopefully a few will) that might drive some momentum for change. That, in turn, could propel some IE 6 users to jump ship, changing the balance even more dramatically. When that happens, we'll be that much closer to cutting out a huge amount of effort when it comes to web development in general.
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