We are why IE6 lingers on

If you ask any given web designer what frustrates them most, my guess is most will tell you IE6.

We know the extra development time and costs that come from dealing with IE6 and other misbehaving older browsers. We know the feeling that it’s difficult to move forward when older browsers hold us back.

We often blame the lingering of IE6 to those who refuse to upgrade their browsers. Perhaps someone is on dialup and doesn’t feel that downloading a new browser is feasible. Perhaps someone is just not all that comfortable with computers and is fine with browsing the web, but upgrading a web browser? Scary stuff.

More likely, particularly for those using IE6, IT managers don’t want to upgrade browsers for a host of reasons, often because critical intranet applications were built with IE6 in mind, the developer of those apps is long gone, and upgrading those applications to work correctly in a modern browser is non-trivial.

A recent article, When Free Isn’t Cheap Enough, goes into more detail on some of these reasons.

Solutions exist, of course. Javascript libraries backport modern CSS capabilities to older browsers. Other tools try to trick IE6 users into upgrading or inform them why they should upgrade.

All this, however, loses sight of the real reason some users aren’t upgrading.

Us.

We are to blame. Every time we utilize a box model hack, every time we fix a double margin bug, every time we get rid of the guillotine error, we give users of older browsers a reason not to upgrade.

Those who have older browsers have no real need to upgrade, because we cater to them. They are not experiencing a broken web. They don’t realize that in many ways their browser is broken, because we do all the work fixing it for them. And we do so with every single web site, rather than fixing the real problem, the broken browsers.

Software applications try to establish some level of compatibility, but at some point, you need to upgrade your OS, or you won’t get to use new applications.

If I was using OS X 10.1, there are some programs I just wouldn’t be able to use. Eventually, I would realize this and march into an Apple store to buy Snow Leopard I might be annoyed I could no longer install Adobe CS5 on 10.1, but I would get over it. I would understand my system just couldn’t handle the latest capabilities.

Some web applications are going this route. I read a tweet recently that seemed to indicate that Gmail no longer works in IE6.

And quite frankly, I understand the challenge that prevents us all from following that same course. We want our sites and applications to work for as many people as possible. The promise of HTML is we create our content once, and it works everywhere.

I believe deeply in accessibility and universal access. Because of this, I have struggled to make sites work in every browser imaginable.

The more pressing question for most businesses is that if they do not make their site work for older browsers, will they lose those people as customers? And if a competitor does cater to older browsers, while you don’t, might you lose a customer to your competitor? Similarly, if you as a designer don’t design sites that work in older browsers, might you lose business to someone who does? Or if you charge for catering to older browsers, might you lose business to someone who doesn’t?

All these fears lead to a giant collective action problem.

If none of us catered to older browsers, users with older browsers would realize their browser no longer functioned properly, and they would be forced to upgrade, even if a cost was associated with this, such as upgrading intranet applications. The cost to do so might be outweighed by the loss in productivity from not having proper access to all websites.

However, the incentives are high, as discussed above, for each individual to cater to older browsers, in order to gain a competitive advantage.

I asked a friend last night, a political scientist, how to solve collective action problems. The short version, he explained, is either through regulation or the establishment of a corps d’esprit that encourages everyone to take an action, even if it does not benefit you as an individual.

Neither seems particularly realistic in this situation.

Nor am I sure that solution is even particularly desirable. Yes, I wish I didn’t have to deal with IE6 and other actors that were good in their day, but are now a stumbling block. However, the web would be decidedly different if it crumbled around you as new browser releases passed you by.

So I don’t have a magic box solution to our collective problem. It just struck me that rather than blaming those with older browsers, we should recognize that our efforts to “fix” things for those older browsers are at least partially responsible for our misery.

We are why IE6 lingers on.