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Closing the Gates on Bill's Browser

There is no doubt that Bill Gates changed the world with Microsoft's approach to computing. There was a time, not so long ago, when only super geeks even knew there was an alternative to Microsoft. And the legacy of this history is that, although people swoon after Apple products, Microsoft and its browser Intenet Explorer are still a significant force, albeit a fading one, across the digital world.

But yesterday marked a change in tack for Microsoft. It was the date when they halted technical support and security updates for the Internet Explorer browser’s legacy versions (e.g. versions 8, 9 and 10). This is a significant shift in Microsoft’s stance as, although most of the other mainstream browser have adopted the auto-update and latest version support model, traditionally they have supported their legacy browsers with at least providing security updates. No doubt the main driver for supporting older browser versions has centred around people using older versions of Microsoft’s operating system, which will have been delivered along with a shiny new (at the time) version of IE. But as time has rolled on, people have remained on that version of the browser until they have trundled down to PC World to upgrade their beleaguered hardware.

There will no doubt be many people cheering at this news. Microsoft’s apparent move towards only supporting the latest versions of their browsers shows a willingness to follow in other browser providers' footsteps and only have one ‘latest version’ rather than a scattering of illegitimate child browsers all over the internet. The ‘update to Windows 10 for free’ notifications that every Microsoft user has been badgered by further supports this and clearly their long term aim is to get everyone using Microsoft's newest browser Edge so that they can dump IE in the skip and close the lid on that whole sorry episode.

But unfortunately it isn’t that simple. As digital practitioners, we would love nothing more than to see the back of IE and its many legacy versions. The browser has long been the Achilles heel of developers across the world. Not only does Microsoft insist on approaching web code support in a different way to everyone else, it has also deviated (drastically at times) from version to version. This means that code has to be wrapped around other code, style sheets specifically created, web builds generally made more complicated, hacks thrown in and compromises made all over the place simply to appease the browser gods residing in older versions of IE. Internet Explorer 6 used to be the ‘digital swear word’. It was the browser that defied modern code and made things difficult for everyone. And then when that browser disappeared then Internet Explorer 7 took on the mantle. And then Internet Explorer 8 after that…you see where this is going. One of the reasons for this is that the approach to coding evolves. HTML5 and CSS3 are now the standard, and they allow us to do very cool things. But these older browsers don’t support this approach to coding. And so if you want a ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’ website you have to work out how you’ll then make it work in these older browsers as well – assuming you care about the people using those browsers of course.

‘So why not just ignore the older versions?’, you ask. Well some people have done that. The overhead for developing sites to work on older browsers is sometimes significant. And in some cases it even leads to having to ditch the better functionality just to pander to those older browsers. A few years ago, a retail site in Australia even took the radical step to introduce a ‘IE Tax’ at the point of checkout, charging users a slightly higher fee if they used this browser and offering a number of alternatives that the user could use if they didn’t want to pay the tax. Of course Microsoft were less than pleased but the stunt made a very good point. It cost them a lot of money to make their site work in older versions of IE and that was simply because of the way Microsoft approached providing browsers.

But the main reasons why we can’t just ignore the older versions of IE is that, unfortunately, a large proportion of the world still uses them. And if we want the largest possible user base for our websites then we need to support the browsers. This is especially true in sectors such as IT and finance. Big corporations often lock down their infrastructures to a specific version of IE and then don’t update for a few versions, due to the upheaval this causes. This means that the larger corporations are often lagging behind, but they also provide significant and key audiences for websites provided in the financial sector. So making sure they can use websites is important, even if, ironically, it is that organisation who is developing the website and the only reason they need it to work in IE8 is so that they can review it before it goes live!

Usage statistics for browsers varies significantly, depending on the source of the data. The Digital Timeline, which uses W3Counter as its source for post-2007 browser stats, suggests that Chrome is now the market leader, and that IE has been in decline for many years – a fact that is clearly evident amongst general users. NetMarketShare.com however suggests that Internet Explorer is still the dominant browser, which is probably true in the professional user base. What is clear is that no matter which statistics you use, older versions of IE are still prevalent and IE in general is a major player still. And this is really the crux of the matter when it comes to developing websites. For the foreseeable future there are still going to be a significant number of users with older versions of IE. This means that websites will need to be developed to support these. However, the major consideration now for providers of secure site experiences (retailers, transactional platforms, etc) is how to deal with the fact that older versions of IE will no longer get security updates. With hacking an ever present threat, maybe the time has come to advise users that they can’t access this more secure functionality unless they upgrade to a newer version of IE. Or maybe, heaven forbid, use a non-Microsoft browser instead?

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