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How Should Web Designers Manage Outdated Web Browser Technology?

Published on March 31, 2011
Tags: Internet Communication

For the last couple of weeks, we have written about improvements to online technology (the Google Farmer update and the Chrome Personal Blocklist) that have the potential to increase the performance of users’ internet experience. This week, however, our attention turns to the issue of outdated technology, which has the potential to have just as big an impact on the internet, but this time for all the wrong reasons.

One of the most obvious examples here is Internet Explorer 6. This is the web browsing system that Microsoft released back in 2001, when Windows XP was just starting to make waves. The IE6 browser was somewhat problematic from the start; it didn’t properly comply with the web standards of the day and it prevented computers using non-Windows operating systems from displaying sites correctly. As this was in the days before Apple became such a big name, Microsoft was the dominant force in desktop computing and so IE6 was the most used web browser, making it almost impossible for other systems to compete.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the flaws of IE6 were one of the issues that led to a restructuring of web standards. This led to increased competition, most notably from Apple’s Safari browser and Mozilla Firefox and so Microsoft had to act to make its web browsers more compatible with other’s operating systems. Eventually, IE7, IE8 and now IE9 were created, ironing out many of the compatibility issues from IE6 and helping to make the web browser experience more dynamic and competitive than ever before.

This increase in competition has generally been positive: with more players on the field, they now all compete with each other to produce the fastest loading web pages, the fastest downloads, and the most comprehensive experience. This is great for web designers as it means their creations are much more likely to end up looking exactly as they intended, no matter which operating system or browser is used to display them.

However, IE6 still refuses to die. Even though in Europe, America, Brazil, Russia and New Zealand less than 4% of web users have IE6 as their browser, it still accounts for 12% of users across the world. This causes massive problems for web designers, particularly in Asia where IE6 is still heavily used, as it prevents their designs from displaying properly and affects the quality of the online experience for users. It means that designers not only have to create their sites to make the most of new technology, but they also have to cater for the sizeable number of people using outmoded browser systems. It also means that Microsoft loses advertising revenue whenever people search on IE6, for complicated reasons involving default search engine settings, which are different on IE6 to later browsers.

It isn’t just IE6 and other outdated web browsers that have the potential to cause problems, either. In this age of search engine optimisation, the speed at which a web page loads is also really important. This can involve a delicate balancing act of coding, Flash capabilities and other multimedia in order to accommodate the whole of the market: while many people now have high-speed broadband, others still use dial up connections while others use mobile internet with varying speeds. Web designers always have to be conscious of this as it is important websites reach the maximum number of web users as easily as possible, but there is also a dilemma that unfurls here.

How long should you accommodate slower and older technologies before moving on and leaving them behind? It’s a tricky issue as, even though the web design industry moves fairly quickly, the ordinary web user isn’t always quite so fast for any number of reasons. This could be because of the affordability (or lack thereof) of new technology, outdated laws restricting their access, speed of the internet connection to download newer versions, or any number of other things. If you are a web designer or company and a significant proportion of your online base is still using slow connections or old browsers, you risk alienating them if you move on from that technology too soon.

The flipside of the argument is that unless website designers move on and take up new technology when it arises, people will have less of an incentive to move on with it. They have less of a need to upgrade their systems if the old ones are still being supported. So a line needs to be drawn in order to strike the right balance between old and new, progress and accommodation.

The hard part is deciding where that line needs to be in the first place.

By Chelsey Evans

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Comments

Malcolm - Ampheon

Commented on May 9, 2011

I really like that idea Stef. Aside from anything else it would also clear up a load of security issues out there on the web, particularly those associated with IE6.

Stef

Commented on May 9, 2011

i think that the line should be drawn with a vast majority of designers and implementers involved. This is a major issue, as I have to spend so much time writing around ie6, and it governs my work lately, because I work in the seo field now. I can't write them out, or I lose rank. As a whole we need to speak to google, yahoo, bing, w3c, and the like. Suggest that they modify their major landing pages to redirect to a downloads page that informs the user that they have to get a new browser. simply make an if argument like you would use in a flash frame.

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