Christian Heilmann

Missing the point with

Sunday, March 6th, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Last week Microsoft released, urging developers to tell their IE6 visitors to upgrade their browsers to a newer browser to have a better experience on the web. Thumbs up for that – we need to get that message out to people (after all this is what the WaSP has done years ago with their “To hell with bad browsers” campaign years ago to make people upgrade from Netscape 4 and IE4).

Alas, the implementation of the “nag bar” is riddled with mistakes. They’ve done the right thing in wrapping the code in a conditional comment (a technology that is still Microsoft’s finest moment in web development when it comes to IE) but there are many issues with it (as also pointed out by Steve Webster, Mike Davies and Bruce Lawson):

  • The nag bar is an image without any alternative text – which means no blind user will ever know why there is an image there and not get the upgrade message – and a lot of people are stuck with IE6 when they use old screenreaders. Why not a styled DIV? Even IE6 knows style sheets!
  • All users get sent to the IE download page to upgrade which means XP users get asked to download IE8 – and this browser is not much better, really, as explained in detail by Alex Russel.
  • Telling people to upgrade IE6 is pointless if the systems they have to use don’t work on other browsers – granted, Microsoft jumps through hoops with every release of IE to be backwards compatible, but some things simply are that badly developed that they don’t work on new browsers. The irony is that a lot of these systems are based on Microsoft’s frameworks and CMS or even “best practice documentation” that was hot at the time it came out but makes you facepalm when you read it these days.

Microsoft painted themselves into a corner years ago when they made the browser dependent on the operating system. Yes, this yields better results as you control the environment (a tempting situation to be in which is why Apple now does exactly the same with Safari and Mobile Safari) but it also means that your browser is much harder to keep up-to-date when there is no incentive to upgrade the operating system. And this is where the main issue lies with Internet Explorer upgrades:

Windows Vista was not good enough to upgrade from XP and Windows 7 does not run on old hardware.

And as Windows users upgrade their browsers with their operating system this means we are still stuck with IE6 or – in a best case scenario – IE8. That is not the Internet I want to have, sorry! Our clients and end users deserve better!

You may say that upgrading is easy and hardware gets cheaper every year but the issue is that the places where IE6 still reigns supreme are those places where a hardware upgrade means replacing thousands of machines and is connected with a four month security and compliance audit. In the current financial climate a lot of large companies, government agencies and academia simply see upgrading hardware as a luxury. And this is where Microsoft should finally own up and grow a pair.

Some ideas of what Microsoft could do to really help solving the Internet Explorer upgrade problem.

  • Microsoft needs to stop pretending that there is no competition – right now Opera, Chrome and Firefox are the only sensible upgrades for Windows XP users – even offering hardware acceleration. Google have no problem pointing out other browsers when it comes to upgrading and leave the choice to the user. This is where the upgrade message should point to.
  • Microsoft could patch IE8 to support new features – something Chrome Frame tries to do – you can not expect people to upgrade their hardware to get a new browser – unless you give them a helping hand.
  • Microsoft should offer a financial incentive to upgrade systems – people upgrading whole systems from a locked-in IE6 infrastructure should get subsidised hardware and very good licensing packages. Google released their free laptop programme for people to give their new OS a go – this could be done by Microsoft, too.
  • Microsoft should offer free training and consulting on how to upgrade – again, instead of wasting money on marketing stunts for IE9 guide people to the changes that need to happen. IE6 is a security risk and keeps us from making products that are fun to use and fulfil a task.
  • Microsoft could open source IE – both Chrome and Firefox innovate and get constantly patched and improved by communities outside of the main development team – if we could fix things in IE, we would!
  • Microsoft should kill old IE – well, more like euthanise it. It has done its duty and has the right to retire. It is not enough to say “upgrade” – remove all downloads, don’t offer patches, remove all the documentation about IE6 only features. Instead of creating a marketing site and ask the community to spread the word start on your own doorstep. Send out newsletters to the MSDN community and say on your conferences that IE6 is End Of Life and support requests are not answered any more.

IE6 must die! Let’s make it happen. Please, Microsoft?

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