[By Alistair Fairweather]
It’s one of the most important pieces of technology in the modern world, a secure gateway to all the wonders and conveniences of the Internet. It’s a tool used every day by billions of people for everything from banking to learning to entertainment. And yet most of us don’t even know what it is let alone which kind we use.
I’m talking about the Web browser, or “browser” for short. Many people confuse browsers with search engines like Google or Yahoo, but that’s like confusing directory enquiries with your telephone.
A browser is the piece of software that “shows” you the Internet. Imagine the Web is like television. In that analogy websites are like TV channels, the Internet is like the signal that broadcasts the channel to you, and your TV is like the browser.
That also gives you a sense of why your choice of browser is important. No one would confuse a flickering, faded, 12-year-old TV with a gleaming, flat-screen, high-definition gizmo. TV fans know which one they would prefer to have.
And yet, despite the fact that many people around the world use the Internet for more hours per month than they watch TV, a lot of us are still hanging on to a 12-year-old browser. I’m talking about Internet Explorer version 6 (IE6 for short) which is one of the most hated pieces of software ever released.
Try searching for “die IE6” and you’ll see what I mean. Whole websites are dedicated to the demise of this seemingly innocuous little browser. Why is it so hated? Because it makes the task of creating secure, beautiful and feature-rich websites so much more difficult.
It’s not really IE6’s fault. In Internet terms, 12 years is like a century. The problem is that when you’re trying to build a highway system for the next generation of electrical cars, you don’t want to have to worry about a special lane for horses and carts. And you particularly don’t want your speed limit based on horses.
But wait, if it’s so outdated and so hated, why would hundreds of millions of people still use it? The simple answer: they don’t know better. When Google launched its own browser, Chrome, in 2008 it began to notice how few ordinary people had any idea what a browser was. This made it extremely difficult to convince them to change brands.
In fact, most people will simply use whatever browser happens to be installed on their computer. This explains a great deal of IE6’s longevity. When Windows Vista, Microsoft’s ill-fated replacement for Windows XP, failed to get traction in the market, many people (and IT departments) simply stuck with XP. Since IE6 was “bundled” with XP (a practice that got Microsoft sued by the US government), this meant it stayed in popular use for far longer than it otherwise might have.
This explains another phenomenon — the millions of people who want to upgrade their browser, but can’t because their IT department forbids it. Because it hung around so long, IE6 became a standard of sorts. And we all know how IT guys love their standards.
But now even Microsoft, the maker of IE6, is trying valiantly to upgrade people to one of its newer browsers (such as IE8 or IE9). It has created its own countdown site advocating the death of IE6. Embarrassingly, SA is one of the worst offenders with over 5% of people still on IE6.
The patience of some of the Internet’s biggest brands has now worn thin. YouTube no longer supports IE6, and Facebook completely stopped supporting it nearly a year ago. Last week Google announced that, from 1 August 2011, it will no longer support IE7 (the successor to IE6), Safari version 3, or Firefox version 3.5. All of those browsers are at least five years younger than IE6.
What can we all do about it? First of all, be sure you know exactly what you’re talking about. Google’s educational video on the subject may be clearer (and more palatable) than my explanation.
Second, make sure you’ve upgraded your own browser. Their are dozens of choices, but the latest versions of Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera are all good browsers. If you’d prefer to stick with Microsoft, its two latest versions of Internet Explorer are also good choices. If you still use Windows XP you can only upgrade as far as IE8, but that’s still a quantum leap forward.
Finally, get your family and your friends to upgrade. It takes 10 minutes with a half-decent Internet connection, and will stop your dad from phoning you quite so often about why his “internets” are not loading. It will also make your whole social circle less prone to computer viruses, hackers and terminal lack of coolness.
Above all though, this is a cry for mercy on behalf of overworked Web designers around the world. To them, every IE6 user is like a dead puppy at a birthday party. Please folks — don’t ruin the fun for everyone else.
- Alistair Fairweather is digital platforms manager at the Mail & Guardian
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