Sayonara IE7… or is it?

At the beginning of the month, Google announced that it was phasing out support for older web browsers like Internet Explorer 7(IE7) for any of the Google Apps suite — Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs and others.

It is not a particularly bold move, since IE7 is only used by about 10 to 15 percent of the global market, and that number has been decreasing steadily by the month.

That said, developers are breathing a huge sigh of relief that somebody with some clout has finally stepped up to the mark and announced that IE7’s days are over, this is because IE7 doesn’t always render pages the way that you expect and it lacks a lot of features common to other browsers. Certainly, its javascript support is very weak and when it comes to AJAX, which is used heavily by Google and many other sites, IE7 is almost unusable.

IE7 was also notorious for not following many common internet standards. Up until fairly recently, most web developers worth their grain of salt spent hours working in the many hacks that were required to make sure a site would offer the same functionality that was being provided to any other browser. Google’s statement that it will no longer support IE7 may finally give developers the courage to stand up and say “No more!”.

We’re still in early days, but so far there has been a deafening silence in response to the announcement. What’s going on?

Sure, on many a forum you will find a bunch of geeks and developers cheering the decision and then proclaiming the usual gripes about the now outdated browser, but from the commercial side nada. Let’s dig a little deeper and try to find out what’s holding people back.

IE7 shipped as the default browser in Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008, and it was heralded as the first major update to the browser in five years. The fact that IE7 was a default browser is pretty important. While many of us may jump at the first opportunity to upgrade to the latest version of any software, businesses and many less tech-savvy individuals don’t. In fact, it is not uncommon to find many businesses and home users still using Windows XP, with a small portion of those users still running IE6.

Certainly, most web-statistics indicate that the two most popular operating systems are Windows XP and Windows 7, with Windows XP still holding the lead. Back in 2010, Microsoft announced that IE9 would never be supported on Windows XP, so that leaves almost half of all Internet users only with the option to upgrade to the outdated IE8, or to install an alternate browser.

Okay, so a large number of those XP users have clearly upgraded to IE8 or are using alternate browsers, otherwise we wouldn’t be estimating a usage of around 10 percent of users on IE7. But recent estimates show that usage of IE6 is also still at around 10 percent. That means that roughly 20 percent of the entire global Internet community are using versions of Internet Explorer that Google considers to be obsolete.

Part of the problem here was that many custom applications were hard coded to work with the IE6 engine, which is why Windows 7 has an XP mode virtual machine that can run IE6, to continue to support these applications. That said, Microsoft has been trying to convince users that IE6 should be abandoned for ages now, and it is clear that the biggest hanger-on is China, which accounts for 33 percent of the users still attached to the browser. The rest of the BRICs add up to close on another 20 percent of all IE6 users.

Maybe Google can afford to lose 20 percent of the market, but most businesses can’t.

One may hope that Google’s heavy-handed approach to the browser upgrade path might help to motivate change, but its worth getting some indication of the types of industries and businesses that are reluctant to upgrade.

Last year the British public was actually petitioning its government to finally upgrade from IE6 to IE7. The Government’s official response was “To test all the web applications currently used by HMG departments can take months at significant potential cost to the taxpayer. It is therefore more cost effective in many cases to continue to use IE6 and rely on other measures, such as firewalls and malware scanning software, to further protect public sector internet users”. A couple of months back, the Scottish Government decided to take a leap into the future and upgraded to IE7. We’re not talking about your average end user here. We’re dealing with megalithic organizations, like banks, governmental departments, schools and other large corporations, who find the task of upgrading software safely a massively expensive and logistically difficult task.

I couldn’t be more happy that Google has put pressure on internet users to keep up to date with their software. Not only will it mean that developers can focus on providing us with improved functionality and services using available technology instead of spending time on backward compatibility, but it will also reduce the number of exploits that viruses and opportunistic hackers can take advantage of.

In general, hopefully, it will help to make the net a cleaner place. But, no matter how positive I am about this decision, I am certain that most coders will be forced to continue the tedious task of looking after the laggers. So, why hasn’t there been a resounding nod of approval from all big business?

The answer seems clear. We can’t all afford Google’s rose tinted glasses. The world isn’t ready yet.



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