Legacy Browser Support: When to Cut the Ties That Bind

When developing rather sophisticated sites for high-end retailers, a constant issue is which browsers to support. What are the merits of continuing support for legacy systems, and the merits of looking forward? Many of you probably have similar decisions to make this year while you’re pondering your 2010 strategies.

This isn’t a column for tech people, so we won’t go into great detail about the kinds of functionality that older browsers don’t support (like transparent PNG files, buggy DOMs, etc). But browsers like Internet Explorer 6, for example, simply aren’t as sophisticated as more modern browsers, including Microsoft’s own IE 7 and IE 8, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome. But many companies are still vigilant about making their sites compatible with IE 6.

Well, the good news is that Google announced last week it will drop support for IE 6 in most apps this year, starting with Google Docs and Google Sites. Google anticipates that IE 6 support will be phased out of most of its offerings within 2010. This is a great thing for the industry for many reasons.

Companies are looking to save money and increase their bottom line. In addition to increasing their sales, another obvious tactic is to simply spend less. The more browsers the technology team has to support, the more expensive building a robust Web site is. This is especially true for modern, highly interactive sites that take advantage of new features that are only found in the latest browsers. Developers need to create fallback sites for consumers on older browsers, and this often takes a lot of time and money, and ends with poor consumer experiences.

Microsoft and Apple have always had different philosophies about software development. Microsoft places a high priority on making its operating systems backwards compatible, so all your current software will work on the new version of its operating system. Apple, however, usually takes the opposite approach. It forces you to upgrade your hardware or software (or both) when a new version of the operating system comes out.

On one hand, Apple’s route can be expensive and annoying. On the other hand, Microsoft’s route has created extremely bloated operating systems and relatively slow forward movement because legacy support only pulls you backward, and never forward.

Back to the online world, the same thing is going on with browsers. Yes, you could make your Web sites compatible and functional with old browsers if you wanted to, but the conditional code on every page to ensure compatibility and provide alternate consumer experiences for older browsers just makes every page that much more bloated. Plus, this is a large added expense that could be spent elsewhere.

With Google dropping IE 6, the rest of the industry (which normally finds it safer to follow rather than lead) can follow suit accordingly. Hopefully we can all now focus on creating robust Web applications and consumer experiences without being pulled backward by legacy support.

Are you still forced to support old browsers? Are you having conflicts about whether to support legacy browsers in your office? Add a comment below. I’m sure everyone would love to hear about it!

Until next time…

Jack

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