Internet Explorer 9, Chrome, and Firefox are great, but outdated software is still holding back the Web.

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Sept. 16 2010 4:23 PM

Please, for the Love of God, Upgrade Your Browser

Internet Explorer 9, Chrome, and Firefox are great, but outdated software is still holding back the Web.

Internet Explorer 9. Click image to expand.
Preview of Internet Explorer 9 

What are we going to blame now? For years, the Firefox-Chrome crowd has painted Internet Explorer as the obstacle between us and the lush, luxuriant Web of the future. While those browsers supported next-generation coding tools like HTML5 that allowed for dazzling graphics, elegant games, and interactive tools, Microsoft's did not. (If you click on any of those previous three links in IE, you'll be disappointed.) If Internet Explorer doesn't support a browser-based tool or toy, it makes it a nonoption for any Web developer who wants a mass audience. By whichever measurement you use, Internet Explorer is the most popular browser around (61 percent of visitors to Slate, for example, use some version of IE).

Internet Explorer 9 could change all that. On Wednesday in San Francisco, Microsoft unfurled an early version of IE9, whose centerpiece is support for HTML5. (If you're feeling adventurous, you can download a beta copy and try it out, but check out the requirements first—sorry, XP users.) Wednesday's demo was so heavy on the new browser's graphical capabilities that you'd think Microsoft invented HTML5, instead of just now getting around to making a browser that supports it.

Two cheers to Microsoft for getting up to speed (would've been three if this were 2008). But it's not too late to blame Redmond for all those outdated versions of Internet Explorer that still populate computers around the globe. It's not just that these crusty old browsers are holding us back from a carnivallike experience every time we check our e-mail. Currently, many essential Web features, like video, require third-party browser extensions like Flash. When the browser can handle that content itself, it should run more quickly and crash less often. (I love Flash, but Steve Jobs is probably right in this assessment.)

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The problem is that millions of IE users will resist upgrading to IE9, just as they resisted upgrading to IE8 and IE7. According to Wikipedia's aggregation of various browser usage studies, 27 percent of people were still using IE6 in 2009, eight years and two new versions later. (Some studies place that figure around 16 percent, which is still unacceptably high.) This late-adopter problem has flummoxed Web developers for decades. When one-quarter of your users are running a browser made in 2006 or earlier, you can't use all the gee-whiz tricks that are now at your disposal. To reach everyone, you've got to keep things simple. (Yes, it is possible to serve different versions of pages to different browsers, but this doubles or triples your work load.)

Why don't people care to upgrade to a better, equally free program? Many people simply don't know what a browser is. They have a computer, they click a certain button to get on the Internet, and then they go about their business. They don't think of the Web as a series of files that the browser accepts and renders into this virtual world. Rather, they believe that it's merely a window into this communal universe that looks the same for everyone. "It's really tough to get people to realize that they have a choice [in browsers]," says Brian Rakowski, the product manager for Google Chrome. "And installing software itself is a scary thing for a lot of people."

To get a better sense for how Internet dummies think about the Internet, I called John Levine, author of The Internet for Dummies. (Note of advice to would-be Dummies authors: Pick a topic that changes constantly. The Internet for Dummies is now in its 12th edition.) I asked Levine how you get people to upgrade their browser. His response: "If I knew the answer to that, I'd be a billionaire."

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