In praise of Internet Explorer 6

On my last evening in Sydney, I was talking to a couple of web developers of similar vintage to myself, and after we polished our ear trumpets and harangued passers-by with shouts of “You young people don’t know you’re born. We fought in the Browser Wars you know” we sat back with a sherry and a custard cream to begin reminiscing about the old days, way way back when Internet Explorer 6 was a good browser.

Because it was, you know. Back in its day it was state of the art. With its super DOCTYPE switching, it managed to be backwards compatible with the broken IE5 box model, while also being super standards-compliant going forward—a trick that HTML5 is just managing to pull off.

IE6 got CSS *right*. Its main competitor, Netscape 4, didn’t – frequently crashing and dependant upon Javascript. Eventually of course we realised that IE6 was full of bugs and CSS weirdness. But that took a while; nobody knew that then because no-one had ever used CSS for designing pages. And Internet Explorer gave a lot of designers stuff that they wanted: web fonts were there (since IE4). You want to colour your scrollbars? Here’s some proprietary CSS to colour your scrollbars. You want filters for opacity, box shadows, transitions and page dissolves and non-standard behaviors? Have some proprietary extras! “Don’t mind if I do”, said the designers and rationalised their behaviour by saying to each other “IE6 is the highest form of browser. If people aren’t using it that’s their problem the silly fools.”

Maxine suggested that I document this fact before history records that we all hated it from the second it was released: we didn’t hate it at all. We loved it.

For those who already knew that, it’s considered axiomatic that the trouble with IE6 was not IE6 itself but but that once IE6 was released, Microsoft stopped innovating. And that’s true — but it’s only half-true. It gives the impression that designers and developers were immediately begging Microsoft to release an upgrade, to standardise all the proprietary flim-flam that they’d built into the browsers.

But they weren’t. While designers eventually began bemoaning the three pixel trouser-flambé peekaboo bug and the lack of :hover on anything other than links, developers were actively propping up IE6 for years and continued churning out IE-only code for ages because it was much easier for them to assume one platform and even code to its bugs rather than code to standards or cross-browser access.

In fact developers of browser-based applications were so desperate not to move on from their IE6 platform that when Microsoft eventually announced IE7 and IE8, it had to ensure all the legacy browser-based systems wouldn’t break by using some magical metatags and heurisitcs.

To spell it out: IE6 didn’t become a zombie despite designers and developers; it became a zombie because of the active support for a monoculture by application developers.

We can look back now and smile at the idea that IE6 was best of breed. We’ve moved on so much! It’s impossible to imagine a world now in which developers proudly browser-sniff to check that the customer is using the “right” browser on the “right” operating system, while they race to code applications that revolve around non-standard “extensions” thereby locking themselves and their users to one browser because it temporarily has the shiniest proprietary extras. That’s absolutely unthinkable as we approach 2011.

The old days eh? Who’d go back there?

46 Responses to “ In praise of Internet Explorer 6 ”

Comment by Marcel

Nice writeup. But I also remember the old days when I used Netscape Composer (I already thought the Frontpage Express was crap) to design web pages using tables. Moreover, I remember the first day I was pointed to CSS by someone and was really amazed.

Comment by Kimberly Blessing

You tell ‘em, Bruce! I’ve been reminding developers of this for years. Hey, if companies like ESPN and AOL could develop complex, fully web standards compliant grids and publishing systems for IE6, then it had to be capable of supporting said things. Right?

Comment by Stu Robson

Some words that needed to be said before the points made would get lost in time. I’m sure in years to come (years and years even) people will be moaning about having to support IE6. But at the end of the day, who pays you the money to do the job?

Comment by Jamie

Hiya,

I do wonder if we have the same thing happening today with webkit, granted its not ‘one browser’ its in a range (eg, safari, chrome, mobile browsers (iphone, andriod, blackberry etc)) and it conforms to more specs, but all of the animation is currently outside the spec…. it does make me giggle when people speak about HTML5 Animation…. *palm in face*

A warning from history? Maybe?

Cheers,

Jamie + Lion

Comment by Jordan Moore

Amen Bruce. The thing that winds me up is the people that still moaning about fixing layout issues in IE6, you’ve had almost 10 years to learn same the bugs for the same program that hasn’t changed!

Fact is – IE6 was a game-changer. People that are still having difficulties with broken layouts are perhaps in the wrong job.

Comment by Stomme poes

“It’s impossible to imagine a world now in which developers race to code applications that revolve around non-standard ‘extensions’ thereby locking themselves and their users to one browser because it temporarily has the shiniest proprietary extras, and proudly browser-sniff to check that the customer was using the ‘right’ browser on the ‘right’ operating system.”

I’ve actually started considering making a Badge with a “Best Viewed with Chrome and Safari” on it, maybe as an animated gif, for all those nasty sites I keep coming across proclaiming how wonderful and awesome it is, while I can’t f&^%$#ing even view the supposed “content” on it. Hair-tearing.

Oh and I still hate IE. All of them.

Comment by Ailin

:) I suppose it is nice to be reminded that at one point IE6 wasn’t the one browser that you just KNOW is going to break your very pretty, functional, logically styled layout.

Though I have to point out that “people that are still having difficulties with broken layouts” may not be people who have had years to learn to deal with IE6 bugs, but rather ones who have been trained on the newer browsers and their set of compatibility issues. It is these, I think, who will have the most gripes with IE6, which they have a hard time breaking their designs to fit, since to them it is archaic and needs to be put firmly in the past.

Comment by Larry Garfield

I once interviews at a company that wanted someone to continue to maintain their in-house web app. It was pure-IE6. Wouldn’t even think about running on anything else, and they said as much. This was in 2005, well after Firefox started making inroads.

I am rather glad I didn’t get called back after that interview. But yes, that’s the sort of problem that keeps IE alive.

In 1999/2000, Netscape couldn’t even begin to touch IE. (And I was a Netscape user.) IE was the only option for advanced stuff like Ajax (which MS invented) for years. But rather than try for a more future-proof approach, developers blindly assumed “Oh, we can just trust Microsoft.”

That’s the object lesson here: Design for a proprietary platform, get chained to the proprietary platform. It doesn’t matter whose it is, that’s still true.

Comment by Todd

Even though I still, rarely have to fix things in IE6, and I get a cringe and a tick when I do… this does hold true. Bruce, thank you for reminding me of what once was. Great article.

Comment by RichB

> no-one had ever used CSS for designing pages

Is this a joke? Actually, as someone who built their first website on Mosaic in early 1994, I think the whole article is a joke.

Comment by Adrian Simmons

@RichB Designing is probably the wrong word. Laying out? You have to remember that although Netscape 4 introduced CSS support in 1998 it was only stuff like font and colour, no proper support for what we then called CSS-P, the P meaning positioning.

@ Bruce Yeah, it’s true that Netscape 4 was the browser that had us tearing out hair out before IE. It doesn’t alter the fact that when NN4 use dropped away IE5, IE5.5 and IE6 took it’s place in turn. IE has been driving us nuts for a long time, and will continue to do so for many years to come.
I don’t remember ever thinking that IE6 was fantastically innovative. Only that it was a lot less broken than IE5/5.5 – but maybe that’s because I’ve mostly been focused on CSS, not Javascript or proprietary filters :)

@Jordan Moore Knowing the bugs and workarounds doesn’t really help – the hair pulling comes in trying to figure out which bit of markup/css is triggering said bug. That’s the infuriating thing about IE6, some many of its foibles just seem to be randomly triggered.

Comment by Martin Smith

Ah yes, the browser wars. My right knee still aches on a winter day from the shrapnel wound I got back in 98 when my co-worker exploded when asked by a client which ‘best viewed in’ button was the right one to include…

Comment by Adrian Schmidt

Great article Bruce!

I kinda remember, although it feels like I was just barely born back then…

But, do you really think it’s just as bad now? Do you propose not using any vendor-prefixes at all, even if the page works fine without them, and the standard attribute (if any) is used at the end of the list?

Or is this article targeted at those (who are ‘they’ anyway?) who will target their sites at only specific browsers (or perhaps only specific devices)?

Cheers!
/Adrian
@rubenpauladrian

Comment by dominic

interesting reading as per bruce. as rightly pointed out, IE6 was a beacon in the darkness at its release, and is/was just a stage along the ongoing road of browser development (“standing on the shoulders of giants”). this has probably been mentioned elsewhere by other people, but for me the problem has always been more political/institutional than technical. i used to work for an e-Learning company whose main client was BT. at the time the latest flash player was v6, but we had to develop everything to v5 as that was the de facto flash player installed on the hundreds-and-hundreds of thousands of the company’s machines. it was just not physically or financially viable to roll out the new flash player across that many machines. so the problem with IE6, for me, has simply been that for a great many multi-national organisations the end users are not able to update their microsoft browser, or install one of the many alternatives. the initial popularity of netbooks meant that microsoft extended their support of XP, meaning that this whole upgrade issue continues to perpetuate. as a further example, my sister works for the environment agency. the laptop she uses to work from home has a “made for vista” sticker on it, yet is running Windows 2000.

anyway, merry christmas ho ho ho :-)

Comment by Erick Gagnon

What is the dimension you’re trapped in? You write “IE6 got CSS *right*”. It’s better be a joke.

Have you ever heard of the crappy box model of IE6? Its double margin bug? The no min-width and no min-height problems? The line break effect after a floated block element? The lack of PNG support? The weird and lousy concept of “HasLayout”? And the list goes on and on…

Nostalgia seems to have an effect on your factual memory.

Comment by Bruce

Erick Gagnon: RTFA.

“reminiscing about the old days, way way back when Internet Explorer 6 was a good browser. Because it was, you know. Back in its day it was state of the art.”

“Back in its day” is the giveaway phrase here.

Comment by Rachael L Moore

I remember I was a staunch IE6 fan. Compared to IE5 and Netscape(s) 4, IE6 was a gift from the gods.

I actually didn’t switch to a different browser until mid-2005 (to Opera). Which I guess might be kind of embarrassing.

Nevertheless IE6 has been the bane of my existence for a # of years now. :-) But it’s good to be reminded of a time when I felt differently.

Comment by Lennie

Proprietary extensions has never been for me, so I never liked IE, probably never will.

I still feel dirty from doing things I did not really want to.

Glad they never made a war tribunal I think they would have sentenced me to death for the war crimes I’ve committed.

Comment by Chris

I was there too Bruce. Starting my career and producing some awful websites I am glad aren’t cached on the way back machine.

The key I always come back to is competition. Without competition in the browser space, IE stagnated and it’s users (web developers) fooled themselves that nothing will ever change.

Any sector of computing that has no competition will eventually pay the price. Adobe currently thinks it’s too big to fail in the graphics market. They bought the biggest threat to them; Macromedia. Quark thought that, Apple thought that, Microsoft thought that, IBM thought that and so on.

IE6′s perceived permanency bred the very developers that said nothing will or should change. It also stoked the fires who do want change in existing platforms (Firefox). It also forced inflexibility in IE so when the platform changed every shifted the best mobile choice (Opera). Which in turn made people more aware of choice in the desktop market.

Even if you like the existing champ, as I did with IE6 back in the day, lack of competition will eventually lead to its replacement. However not after a lot of pain on all sides.

Some products and companies survive for a second chance, some do not.

A thriving browser market promotes standards and interoperability. It also puts pressure on those standards driving them forward. Users get better websites, developers get more software and sites to build, clients get new opportunity. The blood keeps pumping.

Comment by emrose

Bruce,

Thank you for this article, the young ones always look at me strangely when I have tried to state these facts…sad that most hate IE because they have been taught too! They are the same ones who hate tables because they are told how bad they are…(FYI, tables are great when used appropriately).

Comment by Tom @ WebDepend Website Testing

Interesting article Bruce, I remember those days when IE6 was considered to be a good browser.

The main reason I can’t quite get as nostalgic is that IE6 hung around for far too long, practically 10 years in fact, when better browsers continued to be released.

IE6 was a good browser when it was released and then outstayed its welcome and I for one really wished it would go away by 2006 or 2007 when it just become a pain.

Comment by Ed Gillett

I wrote one of the launch Gold Channels for the Desktop Channel bar for the Internet Explorer 4 launch in the UK. CDF was ahead of it’s time – no-one thinks twice of using RSS these days.

I was coding web pages with a downloaded copy of Netscape 3 transferred from a Cyber Cafe with floppy disks to install on my 486 DX2/66 before I actually got a modem to connect to the web :)

Ah .. simpler days.

Comment by Yuhong Bao

What is pretty sad is that they introduce DOCTYPE switching to improve standard compliance in IE6, and then stagnating it for five years, which in the end led to the creation of X-UA-Compatible.

Comment by c69

Very good point. Especially, with the current rise of Chrome as the “new great browser”. And the fact that mono-culture is very attractive to regular code-monkeys.

Comment by Paul Steffens

Amen to that! And I’m a non-believer.
I remember the first thing that really bugged me in those days was the lack of dev tooling. With no Firebug nor even a browsable DOM tree we just had to fire in the wild and hope a Ctrl-R would magically restore sanity. Those were the days when bug hunting was more like a trek across the Gobi desert, blindfolded.
It did indeed take some time for people like PPK and Jeffrey Zeldman to shine a light of wisdom on our proceedings.

Comment by Henrik Carlsson's Blog

[...] In praise of IE 6 – Bruce Lawson 2012-02-20, 18:00 It’s impossible to imagine a world now in which developers proudly browser-sniff to check that the customer is using the “right” browser on the “right” operating system, while they race to code applications that revolve around non-standard “extensions” thereby locking themselves and their users to one browser because it temporarily has the shiniest proprietary extras. That’s absolutely unthinkable as we approach 2011.1 [...]

Comment by Henrik Carlsson's Blog

[...] In praise of IE 6 – Bruce Lawson 2012-02-20, 18:00 It’s impossible to imagine a world now in which developers proudly browser-sniff to check that the customer is using the “right” browser on the “right” operating system, while they race to code applications that revolve around non-standard “extensions” thereby locking themselves and their users to one browser because it temporarily has the shiniest proprietary extras. That’s absolutely unthinkable as we approach 2011.1 [...]

Comment by Bruce Lawson’s personal site : In praise of Internet Explorer 6 :: Henrik Carlsson's Blog

[...] Bruce Lawson’s personal site : In praise of Internet Explorer 6 2012-03-31, 17:00 It’s impossible to imagine a world now in which developers proudly browser-sniff to check that the customer is using the “right” browser on the “right” operating system, while they race to code applications that revolve around non-standard “extensions” thereby locking themselves and their users to one browser because it temporarily has the shiniest proprietary extras. That’s absolutely unthinkable as we approach 2011.1 [...]

Comment by ledahulevogyre

:) Trolling apart, I’m really eager to read Bruce’s (new?) opinion on this. I often consider his opinions as very insightful.
There seem to be a huge contradiction here, but maybe I miss some points.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about open-source monoculture. I tend to see it as positive, but a lot of people say competition is the only way to innovation.

Comment by Bruce

I said

“It’s impossible to imagine a world now in which developers proudly browser-sniff to check that the customer is using the “right” browser on the “right” operating system, while they race to code applications that revolve around non-standard “extensions” thereby locking themselves and their users to one browser because it temporarily has the shiniest proprietary extras. .. The old days eh? Who’d go back there?”

Not me!

As I said in the Opera developer relations announcement today: ” Keep coding to the standards, not to individual rendering engines; test across browsers – Opera, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer; use all vendor prefixes and an unprefixed form in your CSS and JavaScript.”