Despite automatic updates, old browsers are still a problem

These days, every major browser developer pushes automatic updates to its user base. So why are so many people still using out-of-date browsers?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

At the beginning of each month, when Net Market Share and StatCounter release their scorecards for the previous month, there's a flurry of coverage in the technical press about which operating systems and browsers are up and which are down. (For a detailed breakdown of the differences between the two analytics services, see "Net Market Share vs. StatCounter: Whose online measurements can you trust?")

Part of the attraction of this data is the pure horse-race aspect of it. It's easy pickings for journalists, and if you're a fan of a particular platform, you want bragging rights when your horse pulls ahead.

But there's a more practical reason why this data matters. For software developers and website managers, knowing which operating systems and browsers your customers and prospects are using matters a great deal.

The good news for website developers is that modern browsers generally do a good job of rendering standard HTML. For visitors using recent versions of Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, and Safari, most websites will just work.

The bad news is that not everyone is using a modern browser. When I dug into the detailed browser versions reported by Net Market Share and StatCounter for December 2013, I found a depressingly large number of versions still in use. Here's what the StatCounter data looks like, with outdated browser versions in red and up-to-date versions in green.


A note about methodology: For Chrome, I considered the most recent version, in this case Chrome 31, plus the one immediately prior, as up to date. I did the same for Firefox, with versions 25 and 26. (I also considered any higher versions from the beta and developer channels as up to date.)

Both of these independent browsers have automatic update mechanisms that do a good job of making sure the most recent release is applied relatively soon after it's released. But even then, some users resist. Roughly 10 percent of Chrome users have apparently turned off automatic updates, and nearly 20 percent of Firefox users are still using out-of-date versions. Of all pageviews that StatCounter tags as coming from Firefox, roughly 1 in 20 is from a version that's more than two years old.

But the picture isn't so rosy when we look at Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Apple's Safari.

For Internet Explorer, I count versions 10 and 11 as up-to-date. Microsoft introduced automatic browser updates two years ago this month. Anyone using Windows 7 received Internet Explorer 9 in 2012 via Windows Update and should have received Internet Explorer 10 last year, with Internet Explorer 11 appearing as an automatic update in recent weeks. Windows 8 shipped with Internet Explorer 10, and the free update to Windows 8.1 includes an update to Internet Explorer 11.

The good news is that IE6 and IE7 have nearly dropped off the map. The bad news is that versions 9 and 10 are still unreasonably popular. Why, according to StatCounter, are 14.5 percent of all Internet Explorer users still stuck on version 8? Because that's the latest version available for Windows XP. That outdated, soon-to-be-unsupported OS is saddled with a default browser that will be five years old in March, a month before the OS itself is retired. Likewise, anyone still using Windows Vista is stuck with Internet Explorer 9, which is the latest version supported on that platform.

Apple treats browsers in similar fashion. If you want Safari 7.0, you need to upgrade to the latest version of OS X. Anyone using Lion or Mountain Lion can get version 6.1. For the chart above, I considered Safari 6.1 and 7.0 up-to-date. Apparently a surprising number of people running OS X Lion and Mountain Lion have ignored the free update to Safari 6.1 and are still using 6.0. And anyone using OS X Snow Leopard is stuck with Safari 5.1, which was originally released in 2011.

All those outdated browsers make web development messy, and they come with security risks too. Apple and Microsoft need to get more aggressive about the way they deliver browser updates, ideally decoupling them completely from operating system releases. The sooner we can get those old clunkers off the road, the better we'll all be.

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