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.