Why Are We Still Using Internet Explorer 6?

There has been some discussion online recently between public servants about how the public service is still overwhelmingly using Microsoft Internet Explorer 6. I got involved when someone tweeted a link to this site: http://hey-it.com/download.html. The site provides cute posters asking the IT folks to basically get off their arses and give us a newer web browser. I responded back that there are other issues involved when upgrading web browsers, such as legacy application compatibility, and that things aren’t as clear cut as it may seem from the perspective of someone outside IT.

Well, responses to that included “don’t punish users for your deployment issues” and “are you afraid of losing your job if I upgrade my own browser”? Oh, and the term “visionless IT geeks” was tossed around. My response to this was a flurry of tweets quoting other folks rhyming off reasons why large organizations all over still use Internet Explorer 6. I then signed off Twitter and did not log back in for two days.

I essentially had a hissy-fit.

Screw you guys… I’m going home! – Eric Cartman

Not particularly mature, but what can I say. I’m passionate about IT and took things a bit more personally than I should have. But I’ve spent several days since thinking about it and have decided there is an opportunity here to share some knowledge of how the IT group in a large organization views a web browser upgrade. As folks who know me can attest, I am not one to miss an opportunity to share (or receive) knowledge, so here goes.

First, a little about me for the sake of context.

  • I am an IT guy. My entire professional career has been IT, all within the same department (the name has changed more times than I can count, but it’s still the same department). I am NOT a LAN support/Helpdesk person. I am NOT an IT standards person. I am NOT an IT Security person.

    In other words I personally have NO control what so ever about what gets installed or not installed on your GoC workstation (nor do I have anything to do with what Internet sites are blocked, by the way). I am simply a programmer, and like everyone else, I have to deal with the consequences of what “IT” deems suitable.

  • While my entire career has been IT, I spent the first several years of it OUTSIDE the IT group, in what would be labelled a shadow IT group. A shadow IT group is basically folks that the business people deal with to get things done. They get stuff done independently, and regardless of what the official IT group says. We had our own servers, our own un-filtered Internet connection and our own, separate network and workstations (we ran Linux on our desktops). To be clear though, our stuff was completely separate from the corporate stuff. We were a much smaller threat than the average shadow IT shop (I don’t mean threat to IT jobs, but threat to the security/stability of the department).

    So I know first hand the “I/We can do it better than IT” mentality that exists in large organizations, outside of the IT group. Been there, done that.

  • I also side-line as a web developer/designer. I own a company that started life as a web design firm. I am VERY well aware of the limitations of Internet Explorer 6. Access to my own stuff is broken when I am at work.

So, why one standard browser?

Once upon a time there was a large government department with some 24,000 employees and two Internet browsers, Netscape 4 and Internet Explorer 4. This was in the height of the so-called browser wars and things that worked in one browser didn’t necessarily work in the other. Applications were increasingly being developed as web-based applications, because it was simpler: they can be centrally managed and there is no need to worry about incompatibilities between products on workstations. Think about it: standardize on one web browser, make your web application work for that web browser, and your application will just work for everyone! Bliss!

And that’s exactly what happened. Internet Explorer was likely chosen because it is basically built right in to the Windows operating system. You can’t really uninstall Internet Explorer, like you can Netscape. So Internet Explorer it is. I suspect the same story played out in other departments, and in fact in other corporations around the world.

One browser also has the advantage that it means only one product to monitor for vulnerabilities and patches/security updates. Internet Explorer updates, additionally, can be deployed using the same infrastructure that is publishing Windows operating system updates, Office Suite updates, etc.

Time marched on, Netscape all but disappeared from the scene and for awhile Internet Explorer was just about the only game in town. During this time, internal applications continued to be developed targeting Internet Explorer 6. Third-party companies developing software for large organizations could also pretty much guarantee that those organizations were using Internet Explorer 6 so they to targeted their software at that platform.

Fast forward to today and that 24,000 employee department has 100s (if not 1000s) of applications that were built to target Internet Explorer 6. Some just work in Internet Explorer 7, others have some minor things that don’t, and some just don’t work at all. And the story is even worse when we contemplate a switch to a completely difference browser, such as Firefox, Opera, Safari or Chrome.

But Internet Explorer 7 is free. There is no cost to upgrade.

Okay, let’s talk about where that reasoning breaks down. Say that in our 24,000 employee organization, 500 use Product X, sold to us 7 years ago by Company ABC. Product X works with Internet Explorer 6, but doesn’t work at all with Internet Explorer 7. Product X is an essential tool for those 500 people to do their jobs.  We contact Company ABC for an update for IE 7, but it turns out Company ABC was bought 2 years ago by its competitor, Company 123. Company 123 has no update, but instead has their Product Z with works with IE 7. And it will only cost $10 million for licenses. And $1 million for a consultant to help migrate data from Product X to Product Z. And $1 million to train the users on Product Z.

But you know what? I don’t think we can’t legally just upgrade from one company’s product to another. We have to go through a Request For Proposal process, to allow other company’s to also compete on the contract. Optimistically that’s a 2 year process, just to acquire the new software. The process also requires the business area’s time, because it’s their software. They have to make sure that the replacement is capable of handling everything they need it too. Oh, and the business area has to pony up the money too.

Think about that from the business side’s point of view. You’ve got 500 employees working each day, happy doing their jobs. Then IT comes to you and says “We’re going to upgrade to IE 7. But first we need 2 years of you time (for the RFP alone, plus deployment, migration and training) and $12 million of your dollars (doesn’t include salary dollars). I know what my response would be, but I am too polite to actually publish it here.

And that conversation would replay 100s of times across the organization.

Internet Explorer 7 is nowhere near free. Not even close.

Internally, or in-house, developed applications are a similar story. They need to be upgraded, but the resources that would be used for the upgrade have to be prioritized. Government, business/program and IT priorities all have to be balanced. So instead of upgrading existing applications for Internet Explorer 7, IT is implementing Common Look and Feel 2.0 before the Treasury Board deadline passes, or they’re re-themeing existing web sites because the old red and white theme was too “Liberal” for the current government’s tastes (seriously, this is what you tax dollars get spent on).

Oh, by the way. Internet Explorer 7 requires Microsoft Windows XP or better. For a 24,000 employee organization, an on-going migration from Windows 2000 to Windows XP is an expensive and time consuming task, which suffers from its own set of compatibility issues (they are applications in use that don’t work in Windows XP).

Upgrading a web browser on your PC at home is an easy task. In a large government department however, it’s a huge tangled web of issues.