Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How IE6 caused the Dark Decade of the Web

If each developer in the world gave me a penny for every time they were swearing at IE6 then I could possibly be the richest man on the planet. The money spent in web development worldwide just for fighting IE6 bugs could probably buy the Cure For Cancer. Dealing with IE6 was not fun by the slightest. And now, finally, this global generator of frustration is dying a death celebrated by the whole Web Community as well as its own creators. It is really the time to crack a bottle of champagne.

No doubt, we could have been saved from the Dark Decade of the Web. Netscape Navigator was once the best browser on the Web, holding nearly 80% of the market in 1996. It was a strong competitor for IE and competition drives innovation. Unfortunately Netscape couldn't keep up the pace and finally lost the Browser Wars. When the dust settled eventually, we found ourselves left with far from perfection IE6 and on the brink of the decade of frustration.

For nearly 10 years we couldn't do much other then learn how to compensate for IE6 bugs and its devilish quirks. We did care about IE6 not because we liked it. I don't know about you but I still hate it with passion. It gives me nightmares. We cared about IE6 because we cared about our users. What choice did they have after all? With no sensible alternatives at the time it became the most popular browser. The reference experience. The blocker of the Web innovation.

How many times, with pondering heart, were you launching IE6 to view your newest, inventive piece of work and asking yourself: "Will it work in IE?" How many times were you dreading this question so often thrown casually into a conversation by your customer: "That looks cool. Can we have a quick look at it in IE?"And it had to look good in IE. It had to look the same in every browser.

It was going on for so long as to became our second nature. Even after Firefox and then Chrome started gaining popularity and could deliver better experience at a lower price it had always to be the same. We were consciously downgrading the experience in more capable browsers in order to keep it "consistent". Now IE6 is good as dead but will we still carry on? Will we pick another "reference browser", the worst on the market (let me guess... IE7?) to bring our work down to its level?

I sincerely hope we know better than that now. If you had a CRT TV you probably wouldn't expect to watch HD programs on it. With browsers it is not that much different. IE7 is nothing like new Chrome. There is no reason to try and make our websites look and behave identical in both. The experience can downgrade and that is OK. As long as we define and deliver acceptable minimum the rest becomes pure fun. We don't have to worry about how it would look in IE7. We know it will be different. And that is OK.

Even though I am concerned I believe the black scenario is not very likely to happen. The Web becomes less and less desktop-centric. Many more other devices are being used for browsing the Web today and the numbers are growing. Mobile phones, tables, game consoles - they all have different resolutions and provide different experience. The game is no longer about minimum screen resolution. Responsive design becomes a necessity. We are slowly growing used to the fact that the same website can look differently when we switch to another device. From here it takes just a small step to accept that it can also differ depending on the browser we use.

I am sure that the challenges that are yet to be taken are going to be interesting. I imagine designers would be required to provide scalable designs, probably in several variations mitigating scaling stress points. Implementation of those designs would be relying more on scalable CSS3 effects rather than their graphics heavy counterparts. The focus of testing would shift to different resolutions and graceful downgrade of experience in less capable browsers. It's the whole new world.

Seems that the Web has just evolved, we have a lot to learn and even more fun ahead and IE6 is nearly dead. Isn't that exciting?


I would like to thank two remarkable people who inspired me and opened my eyes. Paul Irish, the Lead Developer of Modernizr who gave a presentation on Developing HTML5 in cross-browser world and Ethan Marcotte who contributed to "An Event Apart" (Jan 2012) giving great presentation entitled "A Dao of flexibility".