We Come to Bury IE6

Companies need to upgrade their employees' browsers or get left behind

Photo-illustration: randi silberman klett; tombstone: don farrall/getty images

Scientists, programmers, academics, brokers, journalists, and countless other knowledge workers spend a good portion of their time on the Web, gathering and analyzing information, tracking down sources, and sifting through data. Engineers are no exception. According to a recent study by market research firm Outsell, in Burlingame, Calif., engineers spend almost a quarter of their time working with external information, much of it found using vendor sites, search engines like Google, or info troves like the IEEE Xplore digital library.

No tech company would expect its engineers to hunt down that information using an 8-year-old computer. Yet some let their workers limp along with an 8-year-old browser that has inspired a movement dedicated to taking it behind the proverbial shed and putting it down. I refer to Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6, which will be virtually unusable within a couple of years, possibly much sooner.

While sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Digg inch closer to dropping support for IE6 and Microsoft itself urges customers to upgrade, a coalition of Web sites organized under the moniker IE6 No More has already decided not to waste any more effort on the ancient browser: "As any web developer will tell you, working with IE6 is one of the most difficult and frustrating things they have to deal with on a daily basis, taking up a disproportionate amount of their time. Beyond that, IE6's support for modern web standards is very lacking…." Or as IEEE Spectrum Twitter follower The GT put it: "Loathe IE6 with a passion. As a web developer, too much time & $ wasted on IE6 hacks & security precautions. Bad for Web 2.0."

Included as part of Microsoft Windows XP in 2001, IE6 instantly attained dominance—as much as 80 percent of the browser market. That share has steadily diminished over the years, but IE6 still has anywhere from a 10 to 25 percent market share, depending on whose statistics you believe.

Many Web users who have not installed newer browsers want to upgrade but can't. They are employees of large corporations whose IT departments support only IE6. The social bookmarking site Digg asked its users how many of them using IE6 are doing so because they prefer it. The answer: 7 percent. A whopping 70 percent said they're saddled with IE6 because their companies won't let them upgrade.

Lots of IE6 visitors to Spectrum's Web site are probably in the same boat. Recently, an IEEE member called me to ask why articles he'd printed out at work weren't formatted correctly. He was using IE6, for which we have done some, but not all, of the coding on our site necessary to accommodate it. When I asked him if he could upgrade to any other browser, he told me that his company, a major U.S. utility, doesn't allow employees to download software of any sort on their PCs because of security concerns.

The irony is that IE6, because of its ubiquity and longevity, is a favorite target for malicious hackers. The Copenhagen-based security firm Secunia has reported 158 security vulnerabilities for IE6 since its release. Of the 13 IE6 advisories Secunia issued in 2008, one-fourth involve the exposure of sensitive information or ways to bypass security.

Companies whose employees rely on an insecure, outmoded browser need to rethink their reluctance to upgrade, and fast.

Even as people increasingly rely on the Web to do their jobs, big changes to the Web itself are in the works. As Spectrum has recently reported, Microsoft and Google are both radically revamping their browsers to protect both browsers and operating systems from attack, facilitating a more secure and fluid exchange of applications and data between the Web and the desktop. And as Ben Parr points out on the social-networking blog Mashable, every browser except IE6 is now—or soon will be—benefiting from the new HTML 5 Web standard.

HTML 5 will make it easy to run Web applications on your desktop even when you're off-line. It will make it a simple matter to move files from page to page, including to and from Web apps. Embedding video directly into Web pages will be as simple as embedding images is today. Android, BlackBerry, Safari, and other mobile browsers will particularly benefit from HTML 5 and its geolocation capabilities. Chrome, Firefox, and Opera already support some elements of the HTML 5 standard.

But IE6 won't. Ever. Add that fact to the growing number of Web sites that aren't going to optimize for IE6, and that puts workers whose companies don't upgrade their browsers now at an ever-growing disadvantage.

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