It's Time to Lower The Ax On Obsolete Browsers

By now, maybe you've already begun converting some websites to HTML5. If so, you were probably surprised by how easy it actually is. Because HTML is designed to be backward-compatible, HTML5's new elements degrade gracefully on older browsers, even ones that shipped before the first drafts of the new standard were published.

Until you get to the really old browsers, like Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 6 and 7 -- that's usually when all hell breaks loose, as sane, standards-compliant layouts fall victim to all manner of spacing, positioning, and rendering bugs not seen on newer browsers. That's when the hacking starts, too, transforming easy-to-maintain code into a maze of HTML and CSS quirks and work-arounds.

[ Get your websites up to speed with HTML5 today using the techniques in InfoWorld's HTML5 Deep Dive PDF how-to report. | Learn how to secure your Web browsers in InfoWorld's "Web Browser Security Deep Dive" PDF guide. ]

The worst part is that this problem seems like it will never go away. Conventional wisdom says the installed base for obsolete browsers -- IE6 in particular -- is too large to ignore. Web marketers don't want to risk alienating any part of their potential audience, so Web developers are stuck holding their sites together with the markup equivalents of Band-Aids and duct tape, seemingly forever.

Or are they? Last week, Google announced it plans to do the unthinkable: aggressively phase out support for obsolete browsers for its Google Apps suite of Web-based productivity tools. Beginning Aug. 1, certain features of Google Docs, Gmail, and other Google Apps may not work properly in older browser versions, say Google reps.

Good riddance! Because if the world's largest Web company is willing to go all-in for Web standards, maybe the rest of us finally can, too -- and together we can kill our browser nightmares once and for all.

Browsers race ahead
Initially, Google says it will phase out support for Firefox 3.5, Internet Explorer 7, Safari 3, and all earlier versions of these three products. This isn't a one-time policy change, however. As each new version of one of these browsers ships, Google will drop support for one earlier version, so that only the two most recent releases are officially supported.

This shift comes at a time when browser makers are rapidly accelerating the pace of their product releases. In March, the Mozilla Foundation announced that it will begin shipping a new version of Firefox every four months. Meanwhile, although the final version of Internet Explorer 9 shipped only in March, Microsoft has already teased developers with a preview of IE10. At this rate, Google's new policy will soon leave behind even relatively recent versions of these browsers.

That should come as no surprise, however, because no browser maker has been more aggressive with its updates than Google itself. The search giant's Chrome browser downloads and installs updates automatically, without user intervention. A Chrome user might unknowingly launch a different version of the browser from one day to the next, with all the latest security fixes having been installed behind the scenes. That's why Google didn't include Chrome in its list of obsolete products; nearly every Chrome user is running the latest version at all times.

Even Microsoft is on board
To give credit where it's due, however, Google isn't the only one pressuring customers to keep their browsers up to date. If enterprise customers, in particular, are sticking with IE6, it's not because Microsoft encourages them to do so. In March, the software company even launched an Internet Explorer 6 Countdown page, urging customers to wean themselves away from the obsolete product. "Now that we're in 2011," the site says, "in an era of modern Web standards, it's time to say goodbye."

And if Microsoft talking about Web standards sounds hypocritical, it's because you haven't been paying attention. Internet Explorer 8 and 9 both made impressive strides in support for Web standards, to the extent that many sites now render identically on IE and competing browsers.

Redmond has another incentive to encourage users to upgrade their browsers: JavaScript performance. As Web applications such as the Office Web Apps become more central to Microsoft's strategy, the ability to execute client-side code quickly is essential. To that end, Internet Explorer has engaged in a furious JavaScript performance race with Chrome, Firefox, and others.

In fact, if at one time Microsoft was the enemy of open Web standards, today it has seemingly done an about-face. Last week it demonstrated apps built with new UI tools for Windows 8, which the software giant says are based on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. That led some developers to worry that Microsoft might actually be downplaying its proprietary technologies, such as Windows Forms and Silverlight, in favor of Web standards.

All together now
Such concern may be premature, but the message is clear: In the age of cross-platform cloud computing, client-side development is moving away from such outmoded techniques as ActiveX controls and browser-specific code, toward a more uniform approach based on open Web standards.

Some companies will continue to argue that they cannot upgrade to a newer version of Internet Explorer because their custom applications don't support it. Increasingly, however, these companies will have to weigh the value of maintaining a few aging bespoke apps versus the value of migrating on-premise IT resources to cloud services such as Gmail and Google Docs. When a company's competitive advantage starts to suffer, it can be startling how quickly the impossible becomes possible.

Web apps that are designed to run on modern browsers are faster, more feature-rich, and more secure. As the Google Apps team notes on its blog, "these new browsers are more than just a modern convenience, they are a necessity for what the future holds."

Furthermore, when Web developers aren't forced to test their code against multiple generations of obsolete browsers, not only does the overall cost of developing an application shrink dramatically, but the resulting standards-based UIs are more future-proof, which lowers the cost of ongoing maintenance. Companies that feel trapped by IE6 need never be stuck in a similar hole again.

That's why Web developers everywhere should see Google's new policy as an opportunity, not merely to educate clients about browser standards, but to actively push to abandon support for obsolete browsers. We already know the alternative, because we live with it every day. So if not now, when?

This article, "It's time to lower the ax on obsolete browsers," originally appeared at infoworld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at infoworld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow infoworld.com on Twitter.

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