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.)
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."
In his next breath, however, Levine came up with an idea. A site like Facebook, which is popular with people of varying levels of tech sophistication, could allow users to add features to their profiles that require a modern browser to view. If you were running an older version of IE, Levine mused, you might see a bar indicating that the feature "would look better" in a new browser. People might not know precisely how browsers work, but if installing Chrome, Firefox, or IE9 allowed them to display a video directly on their profile or add dancing cows to their FarmVille fiefdom, suddenly that five-minute installation is worth it.
In other words, maybe the solution is just to bribe people—or punish them. Google has been gently rolling back support for the odious, outmoded Internet Explorer 6, and other sites should follow its lead. I'm guessing that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg could help kill off IE6 in a single day by cutting off support of old, rickety browsers. Sure, he'd lose a lot of traffic for a few days, but what's a bigger hassle for Web users: installing a new browser or bidding farewell to their online selves? For Google and Facebook, the motive here isn't altruism. By rooting out the clunkers, sites will be able to unleash the firepower to create a better experience for everyone. A better experience means more clicks, and more clicks mean more money.
Google has yet to make a move to cut off old browsers completely. Instead, the company has taken the approach of offering high-quality demos, like the Chrome-Arcade Fire "Wilderness Downtown" collaboration. "It does help to drive awareness that browsers are getting better," Chrome's Rakowski says. "The demonstrations we've done are much less about getting users," he says, than catching the eyes of developers and early adopters who will hopefully tell all their friends to install Chrome. I like to think of this as the "restless leg syndrome" approach. First, make people aware of a problem they didn't realize it was possible to have: that their browser, which they think is perfectly fine for reading e-mail and checking baseball scores, is in fact woefully insufficient. Second, offer them a product—Google Chrome, download it today!—to remedy this problem.
At this point, not enough people are using HTML5-capable browsers for major developers to start designing strictly for Chrome, Firefox, and IE9. (Most measurements give Internet Explorer about a 60 percent share of the market.) This discussion has also ignored the logistical problems of how much browser choice people have in the first place. The despots in IT departments typically don't let employees upgrade software on a whim, and older machines won't have the juice to display tricked-out Web sites in all their glory.
My hope is that this whole question becomes moot as operating systems merge with browsers to create a unified, Web-enabled experience on your machine. As I wrote last year, more and more applications that formerly lived on the desktop now run through your browser. Windows guru Paul Thurrott makes a compelling case that IE9 represents Microsoft's first genuine attempt to integrate browsing into the desktop—the same goal, executed in reverse. Just like normal programs, IE9 allows individual Web sites to have Windows "jump lists"—those mini-menus that pop up when a program is minimized at the bottom of the screen. In other words, Web sites are behaving like programs and programs are run in Web sites. Someday, maybe, these two stars will fully collide.
If we reach that point, maybe the browser wars will become obsolete. Tech writers have a lot of fun refereeing the skirmishes between the major players, and those battles certainly drive innovation. But the browser wars have an element of mutually assured destruction. If everyone doesn't agree on what a browser should do, then the Internet stinks for everyone. IE9 should help standardize things a bit, but it can't solve that fundamental problem. For that, we'll need a lot of dancing cows in FarmVille.
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