Prompted by the announcement on 37Signals that their next platform update would not support IE7 or IE8 (or many other older browsers), a vigorous debate took place on Twitter around the subject of for how long we should support browsers which don’t have the most modern features. For all its many positives, Twitter is no place for nuanced argument, so this article is for me to try to frame my opinion a little better.
My idealistic view is that the web should work for everyone, regardless of their method of access. Idealism always takes second place to pragmatism, however; I know that we have to work within our limits, we can’t provide a first-class experience for everyone all of the time. So where do we draw the line for browser support?
The answer is the same as always: it depends.
When making the decision, you should use a Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA). The cost includes your resources: how much time you have, how much money, the staff you have available. All of these are finite. The benefit (or lack of) is mostly to your users: not only the ones who may be excluded, but also the others who could get a reduced service if you have to divert resources to legacy support.
In 37Signals case they know their users well, they’ve done this before and obviously feel the benefits are greatly in favour of their current user base. If someone can’t get access to their website it’s not the end of the world, there are alternatives available.
But your market may be different. You may not even know your market. Telling people that they must update their browser is making a lot of presumptions about them:
- That they are aware of what a browser is. A lot of people aren’t. It’s why Google are spending millions on a global campaign (not entirely selflessly, of course).
- That they have the ability to update it — and I don’t just mean technical ability, but cognitive and physical ability too.
- That the technology they use supports updating or using alternative browsers. Many (most?) of the devices I know do, but I’m not aware of the technology markets across Africa and Asia, for example.
Most importantly, you must assess the benefit of the content — or the lack of access thereof — to the user. You could be building a site about healthcare which contains content that could save lives — literally vital information. Christian Heilmann recently posted browser stats from a healthcare site which showed that ~50% of visitors were using a browser which wouldn’t meet 37Signals’ criteria.
With all that in mind, after we’ve done the CBA I would say that the very least consideration of ours should be how easy it is to do something. I said in the discussion that “we play the cards we’re dealt” — that wasn’t intended to be a statement of passivity, but rather one of acceptance that we don’t control our users. If they use IE6, we build for them. We can educate and encourage, but only up to a point. Beyond that point we start to become arrogant.
So that’s my opinion, I look forward to hearing yours.