A couple of days ago, Smashing Magazine published an article entitled, Old Browsers Are Holding Back The Web1. The author of this article that “old browsers” are holding web developers back from creating beautiful experiences. Old browsers, in this case, apparently referred to Internet Explorer version 6-9. That’s right, the author groups Internet Explorer 9 into the same group as Internet Explorer 6. He goes on to list some of the things that you can’t use in Internet Explorer 8 and 9. You can read the rest of the article yourself to get the details.
Articles like this frustrate me a lot. For most of my career, I’ve fought hard against the “woe is me” attitude embraced by so many in web development and articulated in the Smashing Magazine article. This attitude is completely counterproductive and frequently inaccurately described. Everyone was complaining when Internet Explorer 6 had a 90%+ marketshare. That share has shrunk to 6.3% today2 globally (though the article cites a much smaller number, 0.66%, which is true in the United States). Microsoft even kicked off a campaign to encourage people to upgrade.
I can understand complaining about Internet Explorer 6 and even 7. We had them for a long time, they were a source of frustration, and I get that. I would still never let anyone that I worked with get too buried in complaining about them. If it’s our job to support those browsers then that’s just part of our job. Every job has some part of it that sucks. Even at my favorite job, as front end lead on the Yahoo homepage, there were still parts of my job that sucked. You just need to focus on the good parts so you can tolerate the bad ones. Welcome to life.
But then the article goes on to bemoan the fact that so many people use Internet Explorer 8 and that Internet Explorer 9 is gaining market share. Are you kidding me? First and foremost, I would much rather support Internet Explorer 8 then I would 6 and 7. Microsoft forcing most people to upgrade from 6 and 7 to 8 is an incredible move and undoubtedly a blessing. Internet Explorer 8 isn’t perfect, but it’s a nice, stable browser.
Internet Explorer 9, on the other hand, is a damn good browser. The only reason it doesn’t have all of the features as Chrome and Firefox is because they rebuilt the thing from scratch so that adding more features in the future would be easier. Let me say that again: they rebuilt the browser from scratch. They necessarily had to decide what were the most important features to get in so that they could release something and start getting people to upgrade from version 8. If they had waited for feature parity with Chrome or Firefox, we probably still wouldn’t have Internet Explorer 9.
The constant drumming of “Internet Explorer X is the new Internet Explorer 6″ is getting very old. Microsoft has done a lot to try to correct their past transgressions, and it seems like there are still too many people who aren’t willing to let go of old grudges. There will always be a browser that lags behind others. First it was Mosaic that was lagging behind Netscape. Then it was Netscape lagging behind Internet Explorer. Then it was Internet Explorer lagging behind Firefox. People are already starting to complain about Android 2.x browsers.
What makes the web beautiful is precisely that there are multiple browsers and, if you build things correctly, your sites and applications work in them all. They might not necessarily work exactly the same in them all, but they should still be able to work. There is absolutely nothing preventing you from using new features in your web applications, that’s what progressive enhancement is all about. No one is saying you can’t use RGBA. No one is holding a gun to your head and saying don’t use CSS animations. As an engineer on the web application you get to make decisions every single day.
The author of the Smashing Magazine article very briefly mentions progressive enhancement as a throwaway concept that doesn’t even enter into the equation. Once again, this is indicative of an old attitude of web development that is counterproductive and ultimately lacking in creativity. The reason that I still give talks about progressive enhancement is because it allows you to give the best experience possible to users based on the browser’s capabilities. That’s the way the web was meant to work. I’ve included a video of that talk below in case you haven’t seen it.
It’s not actually old browsers that are holding back the web, it’s old ways of thinking about the web that are holding back the web. Fixating on circumstances that you can’t change isn’t a recipe for success. The number of browsers we have to support, even “old browsers”, just represent constraints to the problems that we have to solve. It is from within constraints that creativity is born3. The web development community has evolved enough that we should stop pointing fingers at Internet Explorer and start taking responsibility for how we do our jobs. Let’s create solutions rather than continually pointing fingers. We are better than that.
Clarification (2012-July-11): I think some people have jumped on my statement about Internet Explorer 8 and missed the larger point of the article. I am not saying that Internet Explorer 8 (or 9!) is on par with Chrome or Firefox. All I am saying is that the constant complaining about Internet Explorer has gotten old. Yes, complaining is useful to get people to listen. Microsoft is listening, so continuing to complain doesn’t do anything except perpetuate an attitude that I would rather not have in web development. Let’s give them a chance to right the ship without retrying them for past transgressions perpetually.