Friday, December 23, 2011

Don't Expect Microsoft's Auto-Update to Kill IE6

Last week Microsoft announced that it is planning to start upgrading users to the latest version of Internet Explorer that their computers can run (IE to Start Automatic Upgrades across Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7). Web developers for the most part were overjoyed with the notion that IE6, the bane of their existence, might finally be brushed aside.

But that's not what's going to happen.

Corporate

IE6 users in a corporate environment generally don't have a say in the browser they use. Typically if they have not been upgraded to a more recent version of Internet Explorer, it's for a reason. This reason can include anything from a customized version of the browser (yes, those exist) to an intranet/extranet application that was built to lean on the features of IE6 itself. When faced with the option of re-writing an entire application or just holding off on an upgrade, imagine which one is likely to win out (especially when weighed between the effort of the full rebuild or the effort of doing nothing). Back in March, ReadWriteWeb ran a poll with results showing that 29% of corporate users are still on IE6 with "no end in sight."

Microsoft makes Internet Explorer 8 and Internet Explorer 9 Automatic Update Blocker toolkits (for IE8 and for IE9) which allow enterprise environments to skip automatic installation recent upgrades. Since IE6 and IE7 aren't given their own opt-out toolkits and the process is still in the planning stages, it's hard to say how those two older versions will be addressed. It is likely, however, that corporate IT departments will err on the side of caution. It's already common practice for enterprises to decline to install updates and service packs because it may affect existing systems. These systems aren't necessarily built in-house, but are from vendors who themselves have not made any efforts to modify them in the years since IE7 came out (or have simply gone out of business). When an organization will not install Windows XP Service Pack 2 (late 2004), it is unlikely it is going to allow a browser upgrade.

Non-Corporate

There are other cases besides corporate environments where you may want to opt out — some assistive technology must be upgraded if the browser is upgraded. For example, upgrading to IE9 requires an upgrade to JAWS, Window-Eyes, Dragon Naturally Speaking and possibly other applications (Remarks on Internet Explorer 9 Accessibility and Compatibility with Assistive Technology). While this doesn't address IE6 specifically, each upgrade of IE has typically required other software updates for anything that relies on IE. These collateral effects sometimes make it cost prohibitive for an organization to upgrade even a free browser.

Microsoft's plan will affect users on Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7. Windows Vista and Windows 7 users aren't running IE6, so they're not going to contribute to any more IE6 market share drop. Some non-corporate users of Internet Explorer 6 are on genuinely old computers and aren't regularly updating their systems as it is. You may not see much of a drop there, if any. Couple this with the fact that Microsoft is not releasing recent versions of Internet Explorer for Windows XP, and those users will continue to languish on a permanently old browser, even if not IE6.

Asia

Microsoft's plan is also unlikely to address the Asian market, where China still sees IE6 running at a 28% installation base (versus 1.8% for Australia and 1.4% for Brazil, where Microsoft is rolling this plan out first). So many of those computers are running unlicensed copies of Windows XP, or are just older computers, that it is unlikely anyone will opt in for the automatic upgrades. While this may not affect most Western companies who don't do business in Asia, it is certainly inflating the numbers for IE6's installation base, and making international dreams for some companies seem a bit more daunting.

Conclusions

I feel like all I do is kill everyone's buzz whenever the coming demise of IE6 is promised. However, I've been killing that buzz for a decade now, so the odds are in my favor.

Microsoft's plan is a good one, and is no more than jumping on the bandwagon pulled by nearly all the other current browser makers. However, because Microsoft has a special place in the enterprise world and with its operating system dominance, I don't see this plan doing much to hasten the demise of IE6.

Related

Not really related, but this handy diagram shows where IE6 fits into the current world of the web:

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