Convincing users to abandon Internet Explorer is like whistling in the wind

Smashing Magazine recently published Dear Web User: Please Upgrade Your Browser, an article by Louis Lazaris encouraging regular Internet users to abandon Internet Explorer and upgrade to a modern web browser. After reading the piece, I tweeted that while I appreciate the sentiment, trying to convince stubborn IE users to upgrade is like whistling in the wind. By which I mean that those users are a) never going to read an article on Smashing Magazine and b) not going to upgrade their browser until they upgrade their computer. Hardly anyone chooses Internet Explorer as their web browser – they use it because it came pre-installed on their computer, and will continue using it for the lifespan of the computer. Any number of articles on Smashing Magazine won’t change that fact.

To be fair, the post was accompanied by a companion piece aimed at web developers rather than regular users: Old Browsers Are Holding Back The Web. Developers are the ones who are actually in a position to make a difference, by campaigning for better web browsers and making informed decisions about which browsers we support. Nevertheless, I question how practical it is to forcibly migrate the entire IE user base to another web browser. Not only that, I wonder if the problems caused by legacy versions of IE are really as bad as Louis makes them out to be?

I would argue that it has never been easier to build websites that work consistently across the full range of current web browsers. IE7 may be an outdated, substandard browser, but compared to previous versions of IE I’ve had to support – IE6 and IE5.2/Mac for instance – it’s a relatively painless browser to whip into shape. My IE7 stylesheet usually contains a handful of rules, if any. In part, this is because I have learned to provide appropriate fallbacks for older browsers, but largely I think it is because the gap between legacy browsers and best-of-breed browsers has closed significantly since IE6 dropped off the radar. People may refer to IE7 as “the new IE6”, but anyone who actually remembers IE6 knows that the comparison is an exaggeration. I certainly don’t relish testing in IE7 and IE8, but I accept it as part of my job description without an undue amount of grumbling.

In his critique of Old Browsers Are Holding Back The Web, Nicholas C. Zakas nicely expresses the idea that while supporting old browsers may not be glamorous, it’s still part of our job:

I can understand complaining about Internet Explorer 6 and even 7. We had them for a long time, they were a source of frustration, and I get that. I would still never let anyone that I worked with get too buried in complaining about them. If it’s our job to support those browsers then that’s just part of our job. Every job has some part of it that sucks. Even at my favorite job, as front end lead on the Yahoo homepage, there were still parts of my job that sucked. You just need to focus on the good parts so you can tolerate the bad ones. Welcome to life.

The web development community likes to rally against old web browsers whose user base we perceive as holding us back, and it seems that in the absence of a genuinely crappy browser to moan about, we will turn our missiles on modern browsers instead. In his Smashing Magazine articles Louis characterises IE9 – the most recent version of the browser – as “obsolete”, and includes it in the list of browsers that users ought to be encouraged to abandon. Bashing IE7 is one thing, but complaining about IE9 seems to me a bridge too far. IE9 is light years ahead of its predecessors, and while I wouldn’t choose it as my default browser, I don’t begrudge anyone who does. More importantly, I think trying to convince IE9 users to switch to Chrome, Safari or Firefox is ultimately a futile effort. Even if the majority of users did jump ship, so long as IE9 and its predecessors retain even a marginal market share we still need to support them. I would love for everyone to magically migrate to Chrome tomorrow, but that simply isn’t going to happen.

It concerns me that the current generation of web developers risk abandoning the principles of progressive enhancement that have allowed us to balance the technical limitations of legacy browsers with the necessity of pioneering new approaches. I’ve written in the past about the emergence of a “best viewed in Chrome” mentality, a trend that shows no sign of abating. Many developers seem to have a myopic view, whereby Webkit browsers are the only ones worth testing in. Tarring IE9 with the same brush as truly legacy browsers can only reinforce a Webkit-centric attitude, but the numbers don’t justify this worldview: Despite Chrome’s meteoric rise, IE still maintains a 32% worldwide market share, compared to Webkit’s 39%. You may believe that Chrome is superior to the alternatives, but that is irrelevant if a third of your users are running IE.

I hope I don’t come across as a defeatist or a Microsoft apologist. We are on the cusp of a very exciting period in web development, and the only thing holding us back is legacy browsers. Lack of support for CSS3 and HTML5 features in IE7-9 means we can’t start using CSS3 and HTML5 with abandon for at least a couple more years, which is a frustrating position for our industry to be in. But there is a glimmer of light: IE10 will auto-update by default like other modern browsers do already, which means we can look forward to a much faster upgrade cycle in the future. As we’ve learned from Chrome and Firefox, auto-updating dramatically shortens the lifespan of outdated browser versions.

Still, it seems inevitable that IE8 and IE9 are going to be with us for a while yet, and no amount of complaining is going to make them go away any faster.

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6 thoughts on “Convincing users to abandon Internet Explorer is like whistling in the wind

  1. Ken says:

    I for one will not support IE9,
    I am Developing Web Games in HTML5/Javascript, and if I were to add code to be backwards compatible with Older browsers then I might as well develop in C++ and just release the game on my own webpage as an EXE download, with hooks into the net so I can use multi-player aspects and allow people chat while playing (one of the biggest thangs people do on facebook games by the way, chat).

    Actually that would be make for a faster game, Javascript still reacts slowly to certain code and webworkers still need improvement .

    But lets just say for a moment you are making a Facebook game. They now prefer you use HTML5/Javascript, for PC, Mac, iphone /ipad access.

    And most developers I talk to are sick to death of microsoft draggin their damn heels on the HTML5 compatibility of IE.

    Yes, we all know some people are lucky they can even turn a computer on, let alone find a better browser, But this is exactly what needs to happen. If Html5 is to take off and make the web a better place to play.

    So if you see a game that is on Facebook but suggests you should get Firefox or Chrome to play it, that will probably be my product. Happy Motoring(surfing), beep beep!

  2. Jonathan says:

    @Ken You make a great point that modern web-based games have a baseline requirement that excludes Internet Explorer.

    I don’t take any issue with game developers using HTML5 features that are not available in IE9 (you mentioned Web Workers) – it would be impossible to create compelling JS games otherwise. I see this as similar to the way that the Flash player used to be a requirement for playing online games (and in many cases still is, I expect?) Games have always pushed the limits of web technology, and their users have to pay a technical price of entry if they want to play.

    I have approached the browser support issue from the perspective of someone who, for the most part, develops traditional page-based, content-heavy websites. Unless I have no choice, I won’t use HTML5 or CSS3 features for critical site features unless I can provide a fallback for legacy browsers.

    Thank you for bringing another perspective to the discussion :)

  3. Jaitra says:

    Whistle whistle *gust* whistle. It’s a least worth a try?

    Developer here for a very large international organization whose standard PC desktop comes with IE7, and this configuration is about to be locked down.

    Sadly, in such an environment, no amount of whistling or appeals to real-world usage statistics matter, for if managers and powers that be cannot view the website, said website will never be approved for launch.

    It seems wrangling websites for IE will continue to be a part of the job description for a while to come.

  4. Jonathan says:

    @Jaitra – Obviously I know which organization you work for (as you say, it is very large), and it’s surprising to hear that not only is IE7 the default browser, but that this configuration is being locked down now, in 2013. You have my sympathy!

    You raise a very relevant point, that users are only part of the equation. A single website owner/manager using a legacy browser trumps any number of users, which leaves the developer little choice but to support that browser.

    Perhaps it’s time for you to start an internal revolution in your organization!

  5. crush says:

    You make a strong point here. However, I’d counter by saying that the development time lost having to write additional code in order to support and/or offer fallback mechanisms for severely out of date browsers exceeds the cost of actually forcing users to upgrade their browser in most cases.

    To complicate my stance, though, some users, as evidenced above, don’t seem to have the option to upgrade their browser. I would seriously question the competency of an IT department that restricted user browsers to IE7. That doesn’t change the fact that they exist.

    There are still other reasons why a company many not be able to upgrade. The majority of their business may live in a software that is dependent on IE7. Upgrading to IE10, for example, could completely break that central piece of software.

    Upgrading that software isn’t always an option either. Sometimes, the company that created the software has since disappeared. Sometimes, the company wants a ridiculous amount of money to upgrade the software that just isn’t within the business’s budget. Sometimes, the company isn’t competent enough to offer an upgrade.

    It’s a very complex problem. To add to the problem, more and more project managers are asking for developers to offer functionality that simply can’t exist in IE7, but does exist in new browsers. Therefore, developer time is wasted trying to gracefully degrade. Sometimes, graceful degradation means not allowing a person to use a site at all.

    Common libraries are dropping support for IE7, which means developers who must support IE7 have to band together and reinvent the wheel in many cases.

    It would be nice if the major JavaScript library providers didn’t abandon support for older browsers with polyfills, but it seems that they are more worried about the overall size of their library payloads. Odd in a world where bandwidth is increasingly cheaper, and transfer speeds are increasingly faster.

  6. Jonathan says:

    @crush Thanks for your well considered comment

    I would seriously question the competency of an IT department that restricted user browsers to IE7

    It amazes me that when an internal team chooses to restrict themselves to IE7 or IE8 when they have complete control over the browsers they develop for, and the browser installed on their users machines!

    Then again, I’ve never worked in the IT department of a large organisation and have no idea of the pressures they must face. I’m sure they hate having to support legacy browsers and applications just as much as we do.

    Common libraries are dropping support for IE7

    And nowadays, IE8. I recently developed a site where it was a requirement to use Zurb Foundation, which hasn’t supported IE8 for the last two versions. Of course, it was also a requirement that the site worked in IE8 ;)

    For most projects though, I have dropped IE8 support. On most of my client’s sites IE8 accounts for less than 3% of the audience, and the cost of supporting that dwindling number is not worth it when weighed against the benefits of CSS3 & HTML5.

    Now we just need to wait for IE9 to drop off the radar…

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