In the first post in this series, I listened among our radical technology decisions the decision to launch our new Pay4Bugs Software Testing Marketplace without any support for Internet Explorer 6. In the interests of full disclosure, let me first say that in the days since the first post in this series, I have partially backtracked on my decision to not support IE6 in Pay4Bugs. After explaining the rational behind the initial decision, I will go into the reason we now partially support IE6.
IE 6 is simply a dinosaur. It was released in mid-2001 almost 8 years ago at which time it did not properly support the standards Microsoft advertised it as supporting. Despite number security and bug fixes over the 6+ years until its replacement IE7 was released, it continues to only partially support CSS 2 and behave significantly different from web standards.
The length of time between its initial release and its replace is often attributed to the near monopoly status achieved by Microsoft in the browser market corning nearly 95% the marketplace in 2002 and 2003. As the browser monopoly, there was little incentive to spend resources innovating and developing a replacement version.
When developing the Attigo Virtual Language Immersion platform, we learned the hard way that making web pages display properly on Internet Explorer 6 takes significantly more time than achieving consistent display on all modern browsers. You can pretty much write to the XHTML 1.1 and CSS 2.1 standards and your pages will display consistently across Firefox, Opera, Safari, Google Chrome and yes even Internet Explorer 7.
One of the biggest problems with IE6 is that it does not support transparent PNG images. This means that if you have an image that is not a perfect rectangle, you need to include a background color in the image. This means that your background in the image when placed on the page must match up down to pixel-level accuracy with the background of your site.
Design for your Market
Attigo was designed for the relatively conservative educational market. While students often have the latest and greatest on their personal computers, browser standards for machines owned by educational institutions are often set on a campus-wide basis and only periodically revised and updated. With this in mind, IE6 support for Attigo was a no brainer.
In contrast, our Pay4Bugs Software Bug Marketplace targets the technology market which, by its very nature, tends to consist to a large part of early adopters. Since members of this market are responsible for developing the latest and greatest software products, they are much more likely to personally use up-to-date browsers.
Based on this initial analysis both of the target market and the time cost of supporting IE6, I made the decision that we would not support Internet Explorer 6 in Pay4Bugs.
Fast Forward to Reality
This initially worked great. We developed the site, the look, and the graphics. We even made a nice little sticky note-like pop up that appears when a visitor uses an old version of Internet Explorer asking the vistor to upgrade. We tested the site around our office here in Guangzhou and on our computers at home. We even sent links to pre-production versions of the site to have friends and family in the States and Europe test it out as well without telling them that it would not support IE6. No problems reported.
Our reality check came soon after launch when we started to recruit Chinese language testers here in China. 90+% of browsers in China are either Internet Explorer 6 or some third-party browser that is essentially IE6.
I already knew this about the general web population in Mainland China. High piracy rates mean that, for all intents and purposes, the entire country runs the same Windows XP SP3 + IE6 + Microsoft Office 2003 + other pirated software ghost image that they give you when you buy a computer even if that computer was sold with a legitimate licensed version of Windows Vista. Additionally, mainland China sites including banks and online commerce sites often only will work on Windows XP and IE6.
I always assumed from working with my (excellent) development team here that most people who had anything to do with web development would probably use anything but IE6. My theory was quickly proven wrong.
Survey the Damage and Adjust
Immediately, we started getting in complaints from Internet Explorer 6-using techies that the site was just about unusable on IE6. It was clear that if we wanted to get any users in the China market, we would have to investigate the problem and adjust our practices. We fired up a copy in Microsoft’s Virtual PC Internet Explorer 6 test image and found out that because of IE6 CSS issues, the registeration and login forms were pretty much unusable.
Compromise for an International Site
In the end, we decided to support IE6 from a usability perspective but not guarantee that the site will look its best. We spent a day adjusting CSS and tweaking the layout so that IE6 renders Pay4Bugs with pretty much the same result as other browsers. However, we decided to stick with our transparent PNG images which means some pages, like the Tester Login page, look a bit weird.
The decision to continue using transparant PNGs and not fully support IE6 still provides us a large time savings when laying out images in that there is no need to consider pixel-perfect matching of an image’s background with the site background.
We hope that those people who are bothered by the display inconsistencies will take the time to upgrade to a more recent browser. Some will. Most probably won’t. But at least the large portions of the Mainland China tech market we were being turned away by our browser support choice will no longer feel completely unwelcome.