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Happy New Year! Internet Explorer 6 usage dips below 1% in the USA

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Sasha Joseph
Senior Developer

In a rare public acknowledgment of their failure to support web standards, Microsoft recently launched The Internet Explorer 6 Countdown and set a goal of reducing usage of IE 6 to less than 1% worldwide. We were thrilled to load up the IE 6 countdown last weekend and see that as of December 2011, less than 1% of United States website visitors are using IE 6. More websites can confidently stop supporting IE 6, following in the wake of Google’s brave decision to phase out IE 6 support for its content-rich products like YouTube, Gmail, Docs, and Sites starting in early 2010.

Before building support (and backward compatibility) for emerging standards like HTML5 and CSS3, web developers attempt to make a set of basic assumptions about what all web browsers are capable of. For many years, widespread use of Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 has been the single biggest obstacle to this goal, mainly because of poor support for existing web standards. Despite the debut of alternatives like Opera, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, and Google Chrome, millions of website visitors continue to use buggy, antiquated versions of Microsoft’s proprietary web browser. As a result, web developers often spend the final days of design projects writing redundant, messy code to make their sites compatible with Internet Explorer.

As we think back on the pain and suffering caused by IE 6, it’s worthwhile to consider how a product which was at one time the world’s most popular browser could offer such poor support for web standards. By web standards, we usually mean HTML 4.01XHTML 1.0CSS 2.1DOM Level 2, and the ECMAScript Language Specification. These are published by international standards organizations, and together define the backbone of the web as we now know it. Ignoring revisions and amendments, each standard has existed for well over ten years, and a browser’s “standards compliance” loosely refers to its ability to implement these standards correctly and consistently. What went wrong? The answer lies in the licensing and ownership of the layout engine (the software component responsible for rendering markup on your screen) and JavaScript engine (the software component responsible for interpreting and executing scripts) used in Microsoft’s browsers.

Trident (a.k.a. MSHTML) made its debut as the layout engine for IE 4.0 in 1997. That same year, development of a new layout engine called NGLayout began in the code labs of Netscape following the acquisition of a small software company called DigitalStyle, whose WebSuite site authoring software was one of the earliest adopters of the new and open Portable Network Graphic (PNG) image format. In 1998, a rewrite of the khtmlw component (an early and extremely limited layout engine developed for the open-source KDE community) began with the introduction of Unicode support. By the end of the year 2000, KHTML had grown into a full-scale rendering engine powering Konqueror, a new web browser and file manager introduced with KDE 2.0.

As of the forthcoming version 10 of Internet Explorer, Trident is still the layout engine for Internet Explorer. Netscape would later rebrand NGLayout as Gecko, which is most commonly used as the layout engine for Mozilla Firefox. KHTML was forked by Apple in 2001 and grew into WebKit, the layout engine used by Apple Safari and Google Chrome. Gecko has always been open-source, and Apple open-sourced WebKit in 2005. Trident remains proprietary and closed-source.

The story is similar when we consider JavaScript engines. The original JavaScript engine, SpiderMonkey, was open-sourced by the Mozilla Foundation along with the Firefox project. WebKit’s JavaScriptCore and Google’s revolutionary V8 JavaScript engine are both open-source. JScript, on the other hand, is as proprietary as the Microsoft platform it runs on.

When organizations like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and Ecma International created a system of open web standards, they built innovation and extensibility into the tools web developers use every day. It’s working. The Web has the potential to become the most democratic medium that has ever existed. This is summarized by the principles of the W3C:

Web for All. Web on Everything.

Although upgrading IE 6 to a newer version is better than nothing, responsible web citizens should choose a browser that does not depend on proprietary software like Trident and JScript to implement open web standards. Proprietary engines are antithetical to the principles of the W3C because they make the web less accessible. Open engines encourage faster adoption of emerging standards and better compliance with established standards, allowing web developers to focus on building beautiful, creative, and modern websites.

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