Earlier this year, Microsoft security and compatibility specialist Chris Jackson posted an article onto the Microsoft Tech Community blog titled ‘The perils of using Internet Explorer as your default browser’. This was the article so many of us in the web development community had been waiting so many years to see: the beginning of the end. Well, another one at least.

The History of Internet Explorer

Way back when the internet was a wee nipper and old shep was a pup, HTML was still quite a new language and CSS and JavaScript didn't exist at all. As time went on, it became clear that it would be necessary to align software developers' understanding of the new emerging technologies and so the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) came into existence.

At this point, "web pages" were mostly just unformatted text and tables, so the desire to have these pages look more aesthetically pleasing and interactive became more of a focus. Additional supporting technologies were created to fulfil these desires, CSS was a planned project involving the same team that was responsible for the development of HTML, and JavaScript came courtesy of Netscape Navigator v2.

With a promising start, Internet Explorer 3 was the first browser to be officially released with any sort of CSS support, but it wasn't until version 5 for the Apple Macintosh that the CSS v1 specification was fully supported. Even then, version 5 for Windows still suffered from inconsistencies with the standard. It was due to these inconsistencies that when Microsoft released Internet Explorer version 6 (IE6) in 2001, they included what is known as "quirks mode", to allow backwards compatibility.

While Macintosh users and people who chose an alternative browser should have been able to enjoy the internet as it was intended, the large majority of internet users were using Windows, which came bundled with Internet Explorer, so to satisfy the largest audience, it began that Internet Explorer started to dictate how web pages were coded.

Despite IE6 featuring this new quirks mode, it still had many imperfections of its own and its selection of non-standard features were added to, which many web developers started to lean on over time, inviting some web developers to start adding ‘Best viewed in Internet Explorer’ notices.

For a short while everything seemed OK, people used IE and if they didn't, they might have a worse experience on your website, but few people cared. At this time only about 12% of the world's population had internet access, the Yellow Pages book was still useful for kissing the tall girl and most people's 56kbps modems would lose connection if somebody in the house picked up the telephone.

Fast forwarding a little…

In 2004, the first version of Mozilla Firefox was released on Windows, this new browser offered more performance and a better user experience than most people were used to up to that point. Other browsers of this nature followed in the next couple of years.

Some ‘modern browsers’ began to emerge which not only outperformed Internet Explorer but also more closely adhered to standards, making them more appealing to us web developer types, but here we started facing a dilemma. As we began creating new websites to support the features offered by these new browsers, it started to show how inadequate Internet Explorer really was.

As the available technology in the industry was constantly improving, pressure grew constantly on web developers to embrace the new and improved tech. This meant that it became necessary to find ways for sites to be simultaneously cutting-edge and also work perfectly on the rapidly ageing Internet Explorer. The average web developer's collection of go-to hacks and workarounds started to grow exponentially, every one adding weight to the site and slowing performance on what was already being recognised as a slow browser.

For a significant amount of time, it became the norm to be spending half or more of the total front-end development time on getting everything working on IE. 

Due to the way Internet Explorer was stitched into the fabric of the Windows operating system, it meant that releasing a new version was not a simple task for Microsoft. For the average user of the time, to install a new version was daunting. Though done via Windows Update, it involved restarting your computer and having it set up a whole selection of new features, running the slight risk of it going wrong and rendering the computer inoperable. Some people didn't really want to risk it, so old versions stuck around much longer than they should have.

It wasn't until the release of IE8 in 2009 that we at last had a version of Internet Explorer that fully supported the CSS 2 standard specification, both Firefox 3 and the first release of Chrome had managed that the previous year. Now we just had to hope that people could bring themselves to update their browsers.

Of course, they wouldn't. We had to go on checking that every site produced worked in the now antiquated IE6, holding us back from employing newer and better techniques.

Microsoft recognises that Internet Explorer 6 was a problem…

In 2009, Microsoft registered the domain ie6countdown.com but it wasn't until 2011 that they offered web developers a snippet of code to add to any web sites we created, this would instruct any visitors to those web sites to update their browser and linked them to the IE6 countdown site. A countdown to April 2014. That's a 13 year lifespan! A lifespan of 13 years for a piece of software that to its users, represents a gateway to a fast-moving world of technology, communication and innovation, is an eternity.

With some fairness to Microsoft, they did attempt in late 2011 to force all Windows users to update to the latest available version of Internet Explorer for their Windows version, but there was still resistance, largely from the corporations and government bodies who had invested large amounts of money in systems that required IE6 in order to run correctly.

IE6 was dead.

As we sailed by 2014, web developers everywhere took a breath of fresh air knowing that never again could anybody be justified in stating that their "site doesn't look right in IE6", but we weren't out of the water quite yet. Heck, we didn't even need to worry much about supporting anything worse than the latest version of IE at the time, which was 11.

Then in 2015, Microsoft announced that they would not be releasing another version of Internet Explorer, but IE11 would still be available in Windows 7, 8.1 and 10. Almost in the same breath, it was announced that Windows 10 would be the last version of Windows that would be released. So what does that mean? I immediately began thinking that this means that IE11 will never die.

Would IE11 become the new IE6?

With an apparently immortal and never changing browser sitting pride of place in front of the majority of the world's internet users, a new sense of dread came over me. By now the modern browser competition had long been on a short release cycle, meaning new features and standards compliance enhancements were being pushed out in rapid-fire.

I was happy however to hear that IE was getting a new sidekick in Microsoft's Edge browser, that was also included in Windows 10 which would also be able to offer more frequent updates. So where's the problem?

People still used IE, because it's what they know. Even though Edge has been the primary browser in Windows 10 since it was released nearly four years ago, I have still had to deal with many requests to ensure sites work perfectly on IE. When will this torture end?

Then Chris Jackson writes his article, we have at last been extended an olive branch. We as web developers can now push forward without worrying about leaving old technology behind. If anyone asks for backward compatibility with IE, I now intend to simply reply with a link.


Have a project you would like to discuss?