The problem with Internet Explorer

Written: 14th May 2008
Section: Internet

Chances are you're reading this on a Windows machine. Statistics also say that you're using Internet Explorer (IE). For many of you, this is what the web looks like as it was your first, and probably only way of accessing it. Some of you might have heard stuff mentioned about the other browsers that exist but are happy with what you've got because it works. If you fit the above profile, I encourage you to pay attention to what I'm about to tell you. At the end you'll even have a good reason for slagging off Microsoft (we all like a bit of MS bashing). Bonus.

We'll start with a brief history lesson. When the internet was just breaking into the mainstream, these new graphical browsers that we now take for granted were becoming all the rage. Until then, the internet had all been about viewing text and sending chunks of data for use later. The problem with these new graphical browsers was that the the early ones used to implement their own features such as flashing text in aim to attract more users. Eventually it was seen that the various features employed by one web designer for one browser might look undesirable in others that didn't support it and that the lack of standards was doing more harm than good. Ever since, we've had a push of standardised rules that tell designers how to build their web sites. The organisation responsible for this is called the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

When Windows 95 became the dominant OS after the success of Windows 3.1, Microsoft didn't include Internet Explorer. It was instead included in the Plus! expansion, as was the trend back then where some browsers charged money for a license to use it. In later revisions of 95, MS caught on and began to bundle it as part of the main install. At this point it was mostly based off NCSA's Mosaic. If you click the About menu item in Internet Explorer you'll see the credits are still there! Even after this bundling, most people tended to use the popular Netscape browser because IE was lacking in many areas and was still fairly basic. As home PCs became more common the windows user base exploded (not literally, though that would have been nice) and with it, the number of people using IE - who literally didn't know any better. Until a few years ago, 90% of all people browsing the internet used IE and I'll now tell you why that number dropped, and is dropping faster.

One of the fundamental methods of styling a web page is through Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and is designed to split all the visual elements of a page from the actual content you read. Support has gone from poorly attempted to an incredibly important feature in any browser. Well, most anyway, with the exception of internet explorer. Happy with the apparent ability of IE, apart from the odd security patch, Microsoft left it largely alone. Do you remember for the long period where IE was at version 6? During this time the standards thing was really picking up pace and many of the existing browsers continued to update their software and its increased capability to display more complex web pages. This is the base of the problem most people have with Internet Explorer today, though mainly designers over users.

As a designer I can spend x number of hours designing a site. I will then spend a further y hours (usually half the time of x) trying to get the web page to display how it should in internet explorer. This is no exaggeration. Ask any web designer what they think of IE and they will scream obscenities. There are many ways to fix this problem including adding additional CSS stylesheets only for IE, using IE's quirky features to somehow get the right output or using javascript to cater for the lack of solid CSS support. Most of the time we'll find a way to make it work but as more time progresses the less we are inclined to do so. Why should designers spend copious amounts of time trying to make something work in a browser is effectively broken? Imagine writing a Word document, printing it out and discovering that the fancy table you included looks hella deformed and the text box you added is half off the page - but ten times worse - and you'll understand the extent of this problem. Microsoft stifled a lot of improvement in website design during the period that it left IE at version 6. Although they have since updated to IE7 and a planned IE8 is in beta, it still lacks some features that other browsers implemented years ago. Furthermore, just under half of the people use internet explorer are still using IE6 so we now have two extra things to fix instead of just one. Although I always attempt to make it as good as possible in IE6 (which sometimes involves major design changes) there are just some things that can't be fixed (just take a moment and give your thoughts to the poor guys at MS who have to get it working on their sites - they must have done wrong in a previous life to be handed that task). There are some subtle features on this site you won't see with IE6 and lower. It's just the way it works and over time I see this become more and more common in the design industry.

Microsoft has, quite frankly, screwed the web over for a number of years (Note: you could start your Microsoft bash with this). People are becoming tired and the user base of IE is diminishing at an increasing rate. If you're still inclined to use IE then consider the benefits you'll get other than web pages that display correctly. Browsers such as Firefox allow users to install add-ons that do everything from block adverts and show real time weather reports to enhancing the appearance and more. Other features such as real-time searching of a webpage (as you type, searching begins), tabbed browsing (again, has done for years), intelligent history (learns your most visited sites which are available in the url bar through keywords) and a quick search bar, to which you can add any website with a search function. Did I mention the extensions? You can even make your own if you know how to code.

At the end of the day, a web browser is used to surf the web. How easy and comfortable that task is depends on your personal preference. I'm not just some pissed off designer trying to take a stab at Microsoft by scrutinising their software but I am providing some good reasons to extend your horizons. Breaking free from the shackles of something you've used for so long is hard at first, but don't be hesitant to give it a try. As mentioned, Firefox is my favourite although Opera is another great one (it also does a mobile phone version which I use on my Sony Ericsson - it really, really beats the hell out of the default browser and allows you to view full web pages without any layout changes. Think the iphone's Safari browser if you've seen the advert). You can download and install as many browsers as you want without disrupting internet explorer, which can also still be your default browser while you check out the others. It won't hurt and can really make a difference to how you - and others - experience the web.

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