China, Google and that Thorny IE6 Problem

IE6 Get Rid of itIt seems that Chinese Hackers used IE6 as a backdoor to attack Google apps, and now Google have responded by saying they will drop support for IE6 in many of their web applications, highlighting the ever-present challenges of supporting this 10 year old browser. The persistence of IE6 is in no small part due to the inertia of corporate IT and compliance departments, who are familiar and comfortable with the browser, which Microsoft says it will support until 2014. Pressure in the other direction comes from web design and software development agencies, who see IE6 not only as holding back the web, but as complicating the creation of rich cross-browser applications.

As a technical director, I am frequently faced with the problems thrown up by IE6 – although cross-browser frameworks, such as the excellent JQuery javascript library, have greatly lightened the load when it comes to addressing the old browser’s foibles. Whilst annoying in design projects, it becomes a development bottleneck when implementing rich client interactivity – particularly as IE6 has some nasty habits when it comes to requesting information in-between page loads. On the other hand, having an older browser gives designers and developers pause for thought when proposing complex interfaces – not always a bad thing when the relentless drive to add the latest bells and whistles may draw one away from keeping it simple for the end user.

Perhaps the best approach to IE6 is so called progressive development. The idea here is that you build in a base level of acceptable functionality that can be supported by all browsers, but then add progressively richer interactivity that will work as a value-added-extra on newer browsers. For example, when one has a form, in older browsers one might have the form submit data by posting off the entire page, requiring a round trip and a ‘stop-start’ user experience.  Through the use of appropriate client-side scripting, newer browsers can then be made to validate data and send information without reloading the page – thus giving a much smoother user experience.

Implemented properly, progressive development can provide an incentive for individual users to move to newer browsers, without penalising those who, for whatever reason, are either unable or unwilling to move. Given the issues of security and compliance, however, IT departments in large corporates will understandably need rather more of a carrot in order to invest the large amount of time, and thus money, involved in adopting a new web standard. Perhaps this will come in the form of agencies adopting a more transparent pricing model that explicitly charges for compatibility with old browers.

As ever, the appropriate response to such issues needs to be sensitive to the specific context of use– an ideological knee-jerk reaction against IE6 or any other technology is simply not good enough.

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About jonallenby
I'm the co-founder and Technical Director of a new media agency - Lime Media. I would describe myself as having a healthy scepticism about technology - new ways of doing things are always new, but they are not necessarily better. Best to cut through the hype and think about how technology will physically change people's lives, for better or worse. I am also struggling to finish a part-time PhD in language, metaphor and philosophy at Goldsmith's College, University of London. Apart from thinking and reading, I like playing with my children, cross-country running and White Crane Kung-Fu - though usually not all at once.

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