Put a Fork In It, It’s Done

When do you kill off support for IE6?  As designers and coders, most of us probably wish we could have done it two or three years ago (or more).  On your own personal sites, or corporate type sites, you may have already cut the cord (many already have).  In reality, for many campuses ending support for IE6 on our web sites is an endlessly challenging, mine laden road.  Whether it’s legacy software that doesn’t work right in IE7+, or old hardware/software that simply hasn’t been updated, or the failure of IT or other offices that you may be tied to in taking an official stance, there can be many factors holding you back.

This is also quite timely, since Microsoft just announced pushing out IE8 as a critical update for Windows which will undoubtedly eat away further at the IE6 audience (don’t forget to set the x-ua-compatible meta tag if you need it).  The topic has also been picked up as a discussion at the UWebD Ning social network.  The general opinion seems to be that people want to move on, but feel they can’t.

The Problem

The problem is a very basic, simple one. IE6 sucks. Period. And there’s nothing you can (or would) do to convince me otherwise. Listen, IE6 came out EIGHT years ago. What other single piece of software (the whole of XP excluded) do you currently use that is that old? Unless it’s a very specific, specialized application, I suspect the examples are few and far between. According to security research firm Secunia, the ActiveX system alone in IE6 at one point had more than 350 vulnerabilities. From there you get into its craptastical (that’s the technical term) support for CSS, useless PNG capabilities, and you just keep going downhill from there.

It takes time and resources to account for all of IE6′s quirks, two things we consistently have less and less of. Whether you code around them, or hack for them, dealing with IE6 is simply too much trouble for an ever decreasing payout. So why bother?  We’ll have to say no at some point, and even if it means cutting off 20% of your visitors, I would argue that it might just be time to drag them kicking and screaming into the future.  But that’s mean, and I’ve never been one to shy away from rattling the cages once in a while.  So, what’s the right market share at which to cut off support, and how do you address it?

More Than Analytics

Deciding to move on and tell people you’re not supporting IE6 is a very complicated issue, and can’t solely be based on analytics.  Not that they don’t help make a case though.  Using Google Analytics, or any one of many other solutions out there, you can get a feel for how many users are hitting you with IE6.  Currently at PSU, we have about 11% of users still on IE6.  I would safely say any total amount under 5% translates to a safe cutoff under nearly any circumstance (that is my opinion on the matter).  More than that, and you’ll probably find you need additional justification.

The thing is that maybe a lot of those 11% are on campus users who have very specific web app needs related to the site. Before going whole hog, make sure you do some evaluation on the impact not supporting IE6 will have among visitors.  If you’re confident that visitors aren’t married to some critical need, then remember that you can always frame your numbers with a different point of reference to justify ending support.  It’s not about lying, and you don’t have to fake numbers, it’s just about showing how your numbers translate to justify ending support.  Some ideas might be to show how far usage has dropped over six months, or change in comparison to newer versions or other browsers.  Or, if you’ve identified a need for some users with IE6, perhaps you grandfather in support for that feature, while no longer advancing anything else.  And be sure to look into IE6 usage on popular landing pages one level below your home page.  You want to weed out some of the people who might just be bouncing off your home page on a machine where it’s just default.  You might actually find your “real” level of IE6 usage on your site is much lower than it appears at first glance.

Solving Through Progressing Enhancement

One solution may be that you can’t end support for IE6, but that doesn’t mean you have to give them everything, either.  This is sort of the passive aggressive approach to “we don’t not support IE6, but we can’t officially drop it, either.”  We use this technique in several places on pittstate.edu.  Using our CMS, we detect the user agent for the browser, and serve up different code based on that, eliminating things like fancy popups, tools, and resources.  We don’t restrict access to data at all, and we try to ensure the base layout stays consistent.  It’s just that there’s no whiz-bang in IE6, and some of the coolest stuff is, in effect, crippled.

You can also use similar techniques, or conditional comments to include custom CSS or bug fixes that handle just IE6, but are ignored by other browsers (common for things like the ubiquitous ).  This requires more work, as you have to take the time to cater custom stuff to IE6, which in my opinion is the opposite of what we should be doing.  IE6 deserves less attention, not more, so I prefer true progressive enhancement, where IE6 just doesn’t get the best new stuff.

It’s Not About Cutting Off

Sometimes, when you tell people you’re ending IE6 support, it gives this impression that the site will simply not work in the browser anymore. It’s very important that you educate people so they know the site on the whole won’t break (assuming you properly progressively enhance), since that’s simply not true.  But, if they’re still using IE6, it’s possible that they don’t realize what it means to not support their browser.  The real case is that they’ll just miss out on features, and you won’t plan on fixing display and layout bugs. No, they won’t be cut off, it just won’t be perfect or super-duper-fancy.

On the chance that your web site does break completely in IE6, I would say that you have bigger problems on hand.  Using proper design and coding techniques, at least the basic elements of your site should never have issues working.

How We Did It

I work in a one man web office that supports our 26,000 page site, and it made it very easy for me to simply say that I cannot take the time to deal with IE6.  I’ve gotten dirty looks, yes.  I’ve gotten an angryish e-mail or two, sure.  But we just deal with it and move ahead.  It’s a resource issue, and I simply don’t have the time to stop and test every little thing in it and deal with its quirks and flaws for 11% of our audience (A number that’s fallen by 50% the past year. See, aren’t analytics fun!).  Usually, these are elements of progressive enhancement, and I do some of the browser detection I mentioned earlier and have the page modify itself accordingly (easy with our CMS) to not serve enhanced code to IE6.  I can’t care, there are just too many bigger fish to fry.

When users complain, I tell them to get Firefox. If that doesn’t work, I politely explain that it’s not a reasonable demand to support such an old piece of software now given our resources, and if they want it to change, feel free to write our VP asking that more manpower be added to the office. And then go get Firefox. Ultimately, people generally understand the situation.

Final Thoughts

The main key, as is frequently the case, is education.  If you take the time to explain why IE6 shouldn’t be supported, and do it in simple, straightforward terms, more often than not you’ll find the buy in you need.  People can be surprisingly receptive when you tell them about the security risks in IE6, and how it holds back innovation.  Successful web sites don’t come from catering to the lowest common denominator.  If you can back your position up with low usage numbers, that obviously helps as well.  Don’t be afraid to compromise, too.  Progressive enhancement is a great way to make everyone happy that won’t cause too much undo burden on your workload.

Hopefully, this can help you in making your move to drop support, or at least limit it so that you’re free to work on truly developing your site.  If you’ve had particular success using a strategy I didn’t mention, or would like to expand on a tactic you used, share below in the comments.

13 Responses to “Put a Fork In It, It’s Done”

  1. Says:

    Bots tend to sign in as IE6 so true traffic is probably less than analytics is showing - digging into analytics a little further will give you a truer figure.

  2. Says:

    As someone who once upon a time rejoiced when IE6 came out and had to wait out EOL on IE4 and Netscape 4… I’m increasingly meh about everyone wanting to forcefully end IE6 support.

    The biggest annoyance is the increasing impoliteness towards IE6 users. Yes, Grandma could be due for an upgrade, but there are a lot of large businesses — hospitals, banks, etc. — that have hundreds of thousands of lines of code that depend on IE6 to run. In the case of hospitals, HIPAA comes into play; with banks, federal banking regulations. And we’re kind of in a bad recession, if you haven’t noticed.

    15% of my users are still coming to my site from IE6. Strangely, that’s about where I was was with Netscape 4 about this time in 2003. By the time I launched the redesign that September (to take advantage of IE6′s improved CSS support — I am not kidding) it was down to under 5%. The user base made the switch themselves.

    So, lay off the IE6 folks. They may not have a choice in what they’re doing, but they’ll be switching soon, whether by critical update or by their own decision. And honestly, the next person to throw a fit about this I will personally come to your office and force you to make your site Netscape 4 compatible AND use CSS while doing it. IE6′s CSS implementation is buggy? You’ve never tried it with Netscape 4.

    • Says:

      @dw, HIPPA comes into play? LOL, that’s exactly why hospitals should update. ie6 is a raging security hole perfect for getting hacked. HIPPA should be forcing them to get away from the browser

  3. Says:

    Very thoughtful article.

    IE6 users are still out there, obviously, (corporate users, people with “old” computers, etc.) and they need to be supported to some extent.

    The degree of support is the question.

    If an admissions inquiry form, alumni donor form or the college’s main home page doesn’t work in IE6? FAIL.

    If the English department’s page looks a bit funky in IE6? Meh. I’d call this a back burner project that might never see the light of day. And that’s not a slam on English as a discipline (it was one of my majors), just competing priorities and limited hours. Of course, you wouldn’t want to put such priorities in writing ;)

    CollegeBoard has a widely-used financial aid awarding product called PowerFAIDS. The software uses a browser sniffer, and if the browser isn’t IE4 or later (yes, I said *four*), it won’t load. I suspect it would run fine in Firefox, Chrome, etc., but the agent prevents it from running. Or perhaps it doesn’t run OK in browsers other than IE.

    Should CollegeBoard be supporting Firefox if it has similar usage numbers to IE6?

    You might say yes, from a marketing and end user perspective. And the same case can be made for IE6.

    I’ll keep IE6 installed among others in my browser collection for testing. But I’ll only run it to test “critical” pages and troubleshoot when people report having problems on a given page.

  4. Says:

    I just pulled up some analytics on our site and the main page is hitting around 16% for IE6 and digging into the admissions page 24%. So it is safe to say I will have to support IE6 for a while.

    I am looking into using more frameworks such as jQuery and possibly Blueprint for CSS that way I can have a baseline of elements that work. I recently fixed an IE6 bug in our style sheet that has been haunting me for months. So hopefully frameworks will allow me to focus energy on other projects instead of chasing down bugs. Framework are probably not the silver bullet but they put down a good foundation to build off of.

    I have also considered putting in a warning message in IE6 to tell users to upgrade. I’m afraid a lot of our campus users would freak though.

    • Says:

      I forgot to include a link to a lifehacker article that has some information relevant to this discussion.

    • Says:

      Absolutely agreed here. My Analytics for about 20 sites shows about the same 17% margin for IE6, thus, it’s already a minority platform.

      I also agree fully with the article and support the idea of encouraging/educating people to upgrade from IE6 (and other platforms that turn obsolete over time) to whatever platform they choose to upgrade, as that is the stand here. Whatever the browser platform - IE8, Firefox, Safari or Opera - it’s better off than the old IE6.

      I’ve also written about the bait-and-switch logic of the upgrade process on the very same considerations.

  5. Says:

    The designers seem to get the bulk of the responsibility when it comes to allowing for IE6, so it makes sense that the impetus would fall to them to draw the line in the sand and say “no more”.

    @Bristol makes a good point about the fact that the bots often declare themselves as IE6. Usually those bots will show themselves as being Window 5.1 or higher (XP and such), which is simply highly unlikely. It would be nice if it was easier to separate the real IE6 users so that a case for not supporting it could be more firmly made to the higher-ups.

    For our sites, especially the eCommerce ones, that number is going to have to dip below 1% before I’m going to have any chance of convincing the right people that it’s taking too much time to support. The only thing they see is revenue being lost.

  6. Says:

    I just looked - over 56% of our page views were with IE6 - IE6 is still the default browser for the school because we still use an older version of Banner that requires IE6 to run correctly. I have high hopes that we can upgrade to a version of Banner that supports newer browsers and that we can then update our school computers - Until then it is necessary for us to continue support for IE6.

  7. Says:

    I have had the worst time with Internet Explorer after IE 6. It wouldn’t display websites correctly, it timed out, it couldn’t open Squirrel mail accounts. Goodness! It’s better now than it was but I’m really starting to like Google Chome. I go back and forth from it to IE depending on what side of the bed I wake up on.

  8. Says:

    Yep, I’m having the same thought as you did, Micheal. As the one of the internet users for over 9 years, IE6 is probably the worse internet browsers that I’ve ever used in my life! One word for IE6: Suck! lol

  9. Says:

    Our school finally made the official transition on school computers from IE6 to IE7 about six months ago. Since then, our IE6 usage has dropped off considerably. I have heard a rumor that they are already considering pushing an update to IE8 to all of the school computers.

    Still, though, IE6 makes up about 25% of our IE users (which translates to 15-19% of our total visitors). Firefox makes up 19-20% of our total visits (with 95% of those users using some version of FF3). Therefore, unfortunately, the importance of supporting IE6 is equivalent to supporting Firefox. Until that changes, we will be minimally supporting IE6. Thank goodness we don’t still have to support IE5, though, as it is much worse than IE6 (when first developing our site, I worked on trying to make our site compatible with IE5, but our IE5 usage dropped to nil by the time we unveiled the site, so my support for it did, too).

    By “minimally supporting,” I mean that we will check critical pages to ensure that they look correct, and we will continue to make sure that our Web templates are IE6-friendly. However, we won’t be putting a lot of effort into checking every page in IE6, nor will we spend an obscene amount of time fixing things that don’t work correctly in IE6. If we can fix it, we will. If we can’t, we will most likely work around it with a simple fix.

    Off-topic Rant:
    To the people commenting about sites that rely on IE6 to work properly; I have some sympathy, but very little. It has always frustrated me when people develop sites that only work in Internet Explorer. You are potentially alienating up to 10-15% of your audience that may not be using Windows (recent numbers put Mac hovering around 10% and you have to throw in probably another 1-2% for Linux users). Granted, there is an IE for Mac, but a) how many Mac users are using it and b) quite a few of those IE-only sites don’t work in the Mac version anyway.

    I have always felt that developing a site that only works in IE is done either out of laziness or ignorance. The tools to implement 99% of the features on those IE-only sites are available and have been available for a long time to make it work in all browsers. Unfortunately, though, many developers failed to use any of them.

    I have the same basic argument against most Flash implementations. Javascript (which, in probably at least 90% of the cases is required by the code to be active when using Flash) is fully capable of doing quite a few of the same things Flash does, but it’s easier to get JS to degrade gracefully and it’s generally much quicker than Flash.


  1. doteduguru.com: “Put a Fork In It, It’s Done” - Is IE6 dead yet? --> says:

    [...] [...]