To support IE6, or not to support?
So, there’s an interesting post over at Puffbox.com, asking “Should HMG support IE6?”
The author, Simon Dickson, points out that 27 August 2008 is the 7th birthday of Internet Explorer v6. That amazes me: seven years old is ancient for software. Microsoft basically packed up browser development after this, declaring that IE6 was complete and perfect and therefore there was no further need for new browsers in the future. Until along came Mozilla with Firefox and proved that to be a complete load of nonsense, and IE started looking very old, tired and underpowered – whereupon Microsoft urgently returned to the fray several years later. Now we have IE7, and IE8 is in beta.
Rule of thumb is that you support the current version of a piece of software, and one version back. So when IE8 comes out, do we get to drop support for IE6 as Simon suggests and advocates?
On a personal level, I’d love to be able to do that. As Simon points out, developers spend a disproportionate amount of time ‘fixing’ standards-compliant sites to work in IE6, which was created in the days when Microsoft didn’t much care for other people’s standards and used their market share to bully sites into supporting IE first and foremost. Fortunately, in recent years they have seen the light and are now far better at things like this – so IE7 is much more standards-compliant and hence doesn’t require developers to spend huge amounts of time retrofitting sites to work with it.
So why should we spend huge amounts of developer time and taxpayer money supporting IE6?
Well – because government is committed to ensuring that the information and services it puts out are accessible by as many people as possible, and not to disenfranchise citizens based on their their choice of technology any more than because of any disabilities.
Can you imagine the howls of outrage if government decided to lock out people using Macs? Or Linux? Well, the proportion of site visitors using Macs and Linux is far smaller than the number of people still using IE6. You can criticise people for not updating, but the fact is that between 25% (the figure Simon gives) and 55% (the figure we see on the COI website) of people are still using IE6. If it’s right to lock them out, then it’s right to lock out Macs and Linux. And it simply isn’t: we don’t do tyranny of the majority in the UK, and I’m very happy about that (as a dedicated Apple Mac user and longtime Microsoft loather, as you’ve probably guessed from the post thus far!)
So as long as a large number of people are using IE6, we’re going to have to support it, much though I’d personally like not to. There are good, genuine reasons why people might not be upgrading: IE7 requires Windows XP or Windows 2003 for example, and so upgrading isn’t an option for some. (Well, they could go to Firefox of course, but judging by my dad I think that would be a radical step too far for many people!) At COI, for example, some of our legacy systems were so well adapted to IE6 that they won’t work with IE7, Firefox or anything else: until these get upgraded by the vendors, we’re stuck on IE6 ourselves. I don’t like it, but it’s the reality.
Minimum browser specification guidelines for government websites are something that the agency I work for, COI, is currently developing. I’m not directly working on the creation of those guidelines, but there have been some good conversations of and about browser support in recent weeks, and it’ll be fascinating to know how they develop and evolve as we head into a public consultation stage.