The Browser Clipping Point

Today, at the time of this writing, Google posted a blog stating they were dropping support for old browsers. They stated:

The web has evolved in the last ten years, from simple text pages to rich, interactive applications including video and voice. Unfortunately, very old browsers cannot run many of these new features effectively.

I made a case to move in the same direction at my company less than a month ago. I reviewed the visitor statistics and discovered less than 10% of all visitors to our sites use Internet Explorer. Months ago, Digg posted a blog asking whether they should block Internet Explorer 6 from viewing the site. Their statistics represented similar numbers to our own.

This would be a fairly radical move as blocking someone from viewing a site seems like a fairly aggressive move on Digg’s part. My proposal was much more relaxed and forgiving. I proposed that I upgrade Internet Explorer on my computer and stop supporting version 6. This doesn’t mean I plan to block people from the site if they haven’t upgraded, it just means I’ve consciously deprecated their choice.

A while back, I posted a blog about browser wars and how people were behaving on the web. I would never condone a conscious exclusion of one visitor or another simply to support my favorite browser. This is unfair and, moreover, can alienate the user in a way that will discourage people from ever returning to my site, even if they opted for my preferred browser.

I am certain someone is asking why 10% is a good threshold for clipping browser support. I assure you, the number is arbitrary. Some people may want to choose a higher or lower number, depending on what their audience needs. Regardless of the particular number, the important thing is the direction the percentage is headed.

When Firefox first hit the market, to say it wasn’t interesting as a browser because it didn’t have a large enough market share would have been perceived as foolish. Firefox use was on the rise, so catering to the users would have been in the best interest of all involved.

Internet Explorer 6 use is on the decline and the dropoff is getting steeper. As users buy new computers and upgrade their software, IE6 gets wiped out. Moreover, Microsoft started campaigning years ago for users to upgrade to a newer version of Internet Explorer.

Something of note, Internet Explorer has been around for almost a decade now. As technology moves forward, IE6 only becomes more obsolete. One of the easiest examples to point to is the support for alpha-transparency PNGs. IE6 renders PNGs with alpha transparency with a blue background. Unless your site is already the particular shade of blue which is rendered, the transparent graphics are going to look cludgy and out of place on your site.

Other items of note, which are important to developers more than users, are things like new Javascript technologies and updated CSS specifications. As these technologies improve and grow, IE 6 will continue to to seem more and more obsolete, much like how IE5.5 appeared after IE6 hit the market.

To be fair, there are other old browsers which also fall down when pushed to render web sites using new technologies. The difference is, new browsers have built-in functions to test for updates. IE6 is old enough that Microsoft didn’t think to build that kind of functionality. They relied on users going to the Microsoft website and upgrading by hand.

In the end, we have reached a breaking point. Old browsers which are no longer supported, even by the company that built them, will eventually need to be clipped from the support regime that so many companies and individuals adhere to. Instead of blocking them, however, try the gentler approach of simply forgetting about them and letting them fade into the past. Be kind to your users, give them a gentle nudge to update and upgrade. Never push them off the cliff. Be aware of the browsers you support and make the web a better place.

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