Why you may have to continue supporting IE6

Part of sustainable design thinking includes managing development effort. On one hand, the “include everyone” feature of most sustainability guidelines implies that we should support the “browser challenged” – users with old browsers or limited hardware and software (e.g. old mobile phones).

On the other hand, development – and the constant maintenance required for websites – gives each project an “embodied energy” which  is significant. Compared to ordinary users, designers are energy hogs. They use sophisticated high-end hardware, spend their days in high-energy software (Creative Suite pulls more power from your desktop than anything except games) and travel extensively for work.

One point where this push-pull becomes obvious is the venerable ancient, Internet Explorer 6, or IE6. The first “modern” browser supporting much of CSS1 and CSS2 when it was released in 2001, it now is an annoying hanger-on. Older browsers died because they simply could not support a modern web layout. Microsoft dropped support themselves in 2010, and is running their own “deathwatch” for the browser.


But given a mass of JavaScript polyfills and browser-specific CSS, IE6 can often match modern browsers for layouts. So, IE hangs on in 2013 – only fraction of a percent in the US and Europe, but up to 30% in some parts of Asia. This is because the IE browser engine, Trident, was used in third-party software, often by ISPs, to provide a custom browser. The browser name may be different (and show up differently in the user-agent) but it is the same old IE6.

The usual response from developers and designers is to dump the old rat. However, this is designer-centric thinking, complete with the cult of Microsoft as Satan, a sort of pseudo net-religion. In practice, the role of web designers and developers is to support their audience, not judge them.

When to drop IE6? Several years ago, “JavaScript for designers” guru Jeremy Keith on 24Ways suggested an equation:

p = 50 [ log ( at6 / ta6 ) + 1 ]
t = total development time
t6 = development time supporting IE6
a = audience size
a6 = IE6 audience size/pre>

An alternative calculation from Brian Cray
average sales per visitor * IE6 visits - (designer cost per hour * hours required to fix IE6)

These equations are several years old. Are they still relevant now? Based on many articles, 2014 is the year we should finally be able to say goodbye to IE6 and IE7.

Microsoft has dropped support:

Stealth upgrades  to old IE like Chrome Frame have ceased to operate:

JQuery dropped support

And online services like Adblock have also dropped support:

And the Verge announced that IE6 is dead

Is this a sustainable decision? If we look at the Modern.IE site listed above the answer is clear: Yes, EXCEPT for China.

In mid-2014, the number of users on IE6 has dropped to about 1% almost everywhere. China is 13%.

Two factors contribute to this:

Third-party web browsers using old IE Trident rendering engines

The large number of computers in China still running Windows XP, despite Microsoft dropping support:

Korea is even worse

Now, if these users update their browsers, the percentage would drop. However, factors including slow updates of services in China (e.g. online banking) may prevent this.

So, we now have a group of users, locked in an old browser with options for updates gone, and support disappearing. Is it finally time to abandon them? I imagine the answer depends on where you live, and what browser you use. It’s pretty clear that the problem in China is IE6 specific:

http://theie7countdown.com/ (1%)

http://theie8countdown.com/ (13%)

http://theie9countdown.com/ (12%)

These statistics imply that most of the IE6 users in China cannot change. They never upgraded to IE7 or IE8. They are different from other users in China have upgraded, pushing the number of IE7 and IE8 to low levels.

So, we have a group of users in China who have been “left behind.” Yelling at them to get a new browser isn’t going to do any good, since they haven’t taken the normal upgrade path seen everywhere else.  They are most likely constrained by their Windows XP installs, rather than being old-fogeys or too dumb to upgrade.

In terms of Sustainable Virtual Design, the “right” thing to do runs counter to almost everyone out there. If you have a market in China, you have to support IE6. And, since the forces keeping them on IE6 are likely ones they cannot solve themselves, support has to go beyond telling these users to upgrade.  There will be a strong pull to make the designer-centric choice, but sustainability frameworks argue otherwise.




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