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30 June 2009

Internet Explorer 8 - time to upgrade

By Andrew Clifford

Businesses should upgrade to Internet Explorer 8 to remove the standards compliance problems with old versions.

The saga of Internet Explorer (IE) and standards starts in the late 1990s, when web standards were not well established, and there were significant differences between browsers. At the time, Netscape Navigator had an 80% market share. To compete with Netscape, Microsoft promoted IE (some would say unfairly) by distributing it free with Windows. Microsoft also owned the popular web authoring tool FrontPage and worked with the then-dominant ISP AOL to ensure AOL users had a version of IE. Microsoft was very successful: by 2002 IE had around 96% of the market share. IE was so dominant, it could get away with not following official web standards closely.

From around 2004, there has been a growth in other browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Opera, and more recently, Google Chrome. IE's market share has now declined to around 65%. Web standards have also advanced significantly. These other browsers follow official standards closely. They all display web pages similarly to each other, but differently from IE.

The differences between IE and other browsers are a big headache for web developers. They have to resort to tedious work-arounds to get websites to look the same in all browsers. Many problems – such as unreadable text or jumbled layouts – are caused by the need to write different code for IE and standards-compliant browsers.

Web standards support has been improving in IE, but there are still problems in IE7. However, IE8 was released in March and follows official standards closely. You can create websites that look the same in IE8 and in other browsers, without complexity and messy work-arounds. This simplifies web development and improves reliability and user experience.

Microsoft have handled backwards-compatibility well in IE8. IE8 can display websites designed for earlier versions of IE, either by setting options in the browser, or by using additional metadata added to the website.

Most home users of Windows will accept automatic updates and migrate quickly to IE8. IE8 usage has grown rapidly to around 15% as of the end of June, and will pass the usage of IE6 any day now.

Businesses tend to be more conservative. They assess change more carefully, and need to allocate resources to manage the upgrade. I guess that most IE6 usage is business-related, and it is businesses not home users that will cling to IE7.

The standards compliance advantages of IE8 are substantial. The case for upgrading to IE8 is stronger than the case for IE7. We should:

  • Set a policy that encourages standards-compliant websites and browsers, and discourages features and bugs that are specific to earlier versions of IE.
  • Consider the long-term advantages of IE8 to balance the cost and risk of upgrade.
  • Explain the situation to our business colleagues, and encourage them to accept minor problems during the transition to standards-compliant websites and browsers.

If we all do this, we will help overcome one of IT's less glorious episodes, and reap the rewards of easier web development and a more reliable user experience.

Next: How does your garden grow?

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