Among the barriers to Windows 7 deployment is the need to upgrade users (and their applications) from IE 6 to IE 8. But too many of those users apparently refuse to give up the older Microsoft web browser. Here’s what’s holding them back.
Most web developers gnash their teeth at the thought of having to support their applications under Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6 browser. IE6 isn’t standards-compliant, it’s insecure, and it does not play well with anything else on the web — especially the software you long to deploy. But a minority of companies still use IE6, to developers’ consternation.
I began to wonder: Why? I found myself curious about the reasons a company might hang onto the old browser despite all its bad press. It would be easy to cop an attitude (and most developers whom I asked about this issue had a violent emotional response). But my motivation was not meant to evaluate anybody’s reasons, only to learn them. This is not because I am a kind and understanding person who is above petty whinging like, “What the heck is wrong with those people?!” but in an effort to listen to the user before designing software for them. You can’t solve people-problems unless you understand the users’ reasons. You can’t sell someone on your strategy unless you know what holds them back. (I simply whine later, to myself.)
Granted, in some businesses it would seem like there isn’t a big rush to change, as Microsoft has said that “Both IE6 and IE7 will continue to be supported with Windows XP. They will continue to be supported until the end of support for Windows XP on April 8, 2014.” Yet, vendors are (finally, some would mutter) dropping support for IE6, and that trend can only continue. So I asked for input from people who work in companies that are still standardized on Internet Explorer 6 why they do so — with some results that surprised me.
They Don’t Upgrade Anything
Let’s start with the not-so-surprising reasons to hang onto IE6. The most obvious is that some companies are slow to update or adopt any technology. You and I could probably share plenty of horror stories about businesses that insist on using the oldest equipment and software around.
Jim’s experience is typical of these stories. Based on his consulting experience in the San Francisco area, he said, “Many small and medium businesses have no clue when it comes to keeping their systems secure. I have found so many systems with expired anti-virus because the business owner either did not want to pay for more anti-virus or did not even know that it was expired.” In other words, user ignorance is a prime issue. But so is the reluctance to upgrade. “There are still companies that still have some systems running versions of Windows older than Windows XP, which are also extremely insecure,” Jim added. “If later versions of IE break applications that just means that they are using insecure applications and the applications should be replaced.”
In Jim’s view, the new browser adoption will follow only after hardware fails. “For small/medium businesses, it will soon be impossible for them to use any Windows operating system older than Windows 7 because they typically buy their systems retail. Larger businesses will soon be in the same boat because Microsoft will not give them Windows XP licenses for too much longer now that Windows 7 is released and fairly stable.”
In fact, larger organizations often have a harder time changing equipment — and the software that goes along with it. Marco, president of a consulting firm in Toronto, Washington and Nashville that specializes in large-scale web systems and information architecture, has a number of clients still running IE6. “Large organizations tend to refresh their client hardware and software at a three-to-five year interval, thus making the use of IE6 a necessary evil,” he said. “For example, we are currently completing work for a large organization (approximately 5,000 captive clients) that finds itself in exactly this situation: They are currently running in Windows XP Service Pack 1 with IE6, their next desktop refresh is not due until mid-2011 and, therefore, we have no choice but to support the older Microsoft browser.” That adds another layer of complexity for the web development firm because individual employees may have installed other browsers outside the controlled environment (since some users telecommute).
The adoption slowness may not be only due to the organization’s own decision-making. As explained by Josh, Google sites administrator at a company in the healthcare field, companies that outsource all of their IT — including internal help desk support as well as web development — don’t know or can’t judge the quality of service they’re getting. “I was developing a website for one such company recently and we couldn’t get past certain barriers because their third-rate third-party IT was apparently unconcerned with upgrading them,” explained Josh. “And the company itself was unaware that it was a problem.” Josh’s exhortations to upgrade fell on deaf ears, but his client felt “They should be able to see what their customers would see, as they felt that a lot of their customers were also behind the times,” he said.
One Critical IE6-Only Application Holds Them Back
The other unsurprising reason is that the business may rely on a Web application that runs (or was supported) only on the older browser, and the company may be reluctant to upgrade. This made sense to me once I stepped back from the platform or browser issue to look at the adoption or upgrade cycle for third-party software on its own merits. For instance, I used to work in a company that used Lotus Notes in a version that was three versions behind the current one IBM/Lotus sold. Nobody from the IT department ever confided in me about the reasons, but it was clear that our organization wasn’t scratching the surface on the existing features and didn’t see a reason to spend more for a newer version. As long as they could keep the old version running with an existing environment (which in desktop terms likely means Windows XP for most businesses), there was no motivation to change.
So one thing that keeps users on IE6 is the dependence on a critical application that hasn’t been upgraded but works only on the older browser. For example, a quality assurance professional told me that her employer is finally moving to IE7 next month. “One of the delays has been Siebel,” she explained. The business installed the Siebel version that supports IE7 just over a month ago. “The company has been supporting IE7 (and other browsers) for users who are outside the company for nearly two years,” she added.
IT guy Jeffrey confided that his company has “some very annoying software” that runs most of the business which is not certified for any level above IE 6. The company also just put into service an “incredibly crappy content management system” that only supports IE 6. “It’s great being in the dark ages,” he wrote. “I am so embarrassed to admit that I am in IT in our company.”
John, the head of technology at a software company, is frustrated by web applications that aren’t backwards compatible. “Our problem with the Windows 7 rollout is around SAP compatibility. For example, SAP’s own portal site doesn’t work right in IE8. So if we roll out Windows 7, our developers won’t be able to request developer keys etc. and so won’t be able to work,” he said. Newer versions of SAP software were fixed to work in IE7 and IE8 but older patch levels don’t work. John’s company can control its internal systems, but they can’t fix our customers’ systems in every case, which causes a challenge. “I’m sure time will resolve these issues but in the meantime we are stuck on XP and IE6/7,” he explained.
Why Do Software Maintenance? It Isn’t Broken!
Then there’s the developers and their employers who recognize that the new browsers are better — but haven’t found the financial justification to invest in updating their own custom software. Companies who have many critical internal applications that won’t run on later versions often do not want to spend the money, time, or possible business interruption to upgrade all of the applications. As a software QA engineer named Vicki said, “Some internal applications still only work on IE6 and the time investment into making them work with new versions has not been made.”
Paul, an IT Manager in the Netherlands, shares the frustration of coping with older applications that fail in the new versions of Internet Explorer. “At least for us, that is the prime reason to stick with an older version,” he said.
The applications need to be rewritten, Paul acknowledges. “But how does an IT department convince business leaders to spend a lot of money to get what they already have?” he asks. “The many advantages to upgrades aside: The applications would still deliver what they always have.” In the view of the business leaders (the people with their hands on the annual budget, the software will end up doing the same thing it does today, and there’s plenty of pressure to spend limited finances on things that don’t work at all.
It is probably a matter of time though, said Paul. “Eventually the developers will be adding functionality or rewrite the application to suit changed needs of the business, and that will prove to be the most opportune time to make the application IE8-ready.”
In addition to money, said Marteyn, owner and director of a digital media and IT development company in Malaysia, users and consulting clients often are also ignorant of issues such as security and performance. “Too many of our (potential) clients are unwilling to invest in upgrading their hardware, which as a result typically rules out the use of modern browsers,” said Marteyn. “It’s typically not the large companies that are the problem here, it is the vast number of [small and medium businesses] out there that will not (or can not) afford the time and money to do these kind of upgrades.”
According to Marteyn, one result is that the client stays ignorant and the outsourcing companies don’t educate them. “Hardly any of the established companies deliver top-notch solutions to their clients (I’m thinking e-commerce here mainly). This to me shows for the fact that being up to par with the latest technology is still not an important issue on anyone’s agenda.”
IE6 as User Control
But I was a bit shocked — and amused — by the secret reason that some companies refuse to drop IE6: They keep it precisely because it is so limiting. That is, as long as it runs the current crop of web applications they rely on, they don’t have to care if IE6 looks ugly with CNN or if it crashes when you access YouTube. They don’t want their employees hanging out on CNN or visiting YouTube in the first place!
As a UK e-commerce and IT consultant explained, most B2B sites are just fine with IE6. “But at the same time, most of the Web 2 (social networks) are not working well. So IE6 is used as sort of a ‘block’ for Facebook.” Why install site block software when the browser on which you standardized does the job for you?
A developer’s response to these reasons depends, naturally, on what sort of site is being built. B2B sites may need to support IE6 if they want to keep these customers. If your web startup is meant to appeal only to consumers — who only check it on lunch breaks, really! (yeah, right) — perhaps you can give up IE6 support because the target site visitor is playing hooky at her desk anyway.
The larger issue is one of convincing the CFO to allocate a budget to update the allegedly-working IE6-only web application, or to move away from older commercial software that relies on IE6. I’m not sure how that happens, but perhaps some shared wisdom (“This is what worked for me…”) will help other developers.
Is your company still using or supporting IE6? As a developer or IT manager, how have you nudged them towards the adoption of more modern browsers? Tell me; I’d love to know.
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[Note: edited to correct attribution to Marteyn.—ES]