It's time to lower the ax on obsolete browsers

Google is phasing out support for older versions of Firefox, IE, and Safari. It's time more Web developers did the same

By now, maybe you've already begun converting some websites to HTML5. If so, you were probably surprised by how easy it actually is. Because HTML is designed to be backward-compatible, HTML5's new elements degrade gracefully on older browsers, even ones that shipped before the first drafts of the new standard were published.

Until you get to the really old browsers, like Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 6 and 7 -- that's usually when all hell breaks loose, as sane, standards-compliant layouts fall victim to all manner of spacing, positioning, and rendering bugs not seen on newer browsers. That's when the hacking starts, too, transforming easy-to-maintain code into a maze of HTML and CSS quirks and work-arounds.

[ Get your websites up to speed with HTML5 today using the techniques in InfoWorld's HTML5 Deep Dive PDF how-to report. | Learn how to secure your Web browsers in InfoWorld's "Web Browser Security Deep Dive" PDF guide. ]

The worst part is that this problem seems like it will never go away. Conventional wisdom says the installed base for obsolete browsers -- IE6 in particular -- is too large to ignore. Web marketers don't want to risk alienating any part of their potential audience, so Web developers are stuck holding their sites together with the markup equivalents of Band-Aids and duct tape, seemingly forever.

Or are they? Last week, Google announced it plans to do the unthinkable: aggressively phase out support for obsolete browsers for its Google Apps suite of Web-based productivity tools. Beginning Aug. 1, certain features of Google Docs, Gmail, and other Google Apps may not work properly in older browser versions, say Google reps.

Good riddance! Because if the world's largest Web company is willing to go all-in for Web standards, maybe the rest of us finally can, too -- and together we can kill our browser nightmares once and for all.

Browsers race ahead
Initially, Google says it will phase out support for Firefox 3.5, Internet Explorer 7, Safari 3, and all earlier versions of these three products. This isn't a one-time policy change, however. As each new version of one of these browsers ships, Google will drop support for one earlier version, so that only the two most recent releases are officially supported.

This shift comes at a time when browser makers are rapidly accelerating the pace of their product releases. In March, the Mozilla Foundation announced that it will begin shipping a new version of Firefox every four months. Meanwhile, although the final version of Internet Explorer 9 shipped only in March, Microsoft has already teased developers with a preview of IE10. At this rate, Google's new policy will soon leave behind even relatively recent versions of these browsers.

That should come as no surprise, however, because no browser maker has been more aggressive with its updates than Google itself. The search giant's Chrome browser downloads and installs updates automatically, without user intervention. A Chrome user might unknowingly launch a different version of the browser from one day to the next, with all the latest security fixes having been installed behind the scenes. That's why Google didn't include Chrome in its list of obsolete products; nearly every Chrome user is running the latest version at all times.

Even Microsoft is on board
To give credit where it's due, however, Google isn't the only one pressuring customers to keep their browsers up to date. If enterprise customers, in particular, are sticking with IE6, it's not because Microsoft encourages them to do so. In March, the software company even launched an Internet Explorer 6 Countdown page, urging customers to wean themselves away from the obsolete product. "Now that we're in 2011," the site says, "in an era of modern Web standards, it's time to say goodbye."

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