Ex-YouTube developer reveals how he 'conspired to kill IE6'

Unendorsed YouTube web banner may have helped obliterate Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 usage.

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A former web developer at YouTube has revealed a tale about a clandestine operation to kill Internet Explorer 6 with a banner that went live in July 2009 warning IE6 users that YouTube would be phasing out support for Microsoft's browser – even though no one at Google had endorsed such a plan.     

IE6 of course shipped as the default browser with Windows XP in 2001, six years before Chrome's first release in 2008. 

Google wouldn't officially drop support for IE6 until March 2010, but a group of renegade web developers at YouTube had already pulled off a campaign that coincided with a serious fall in IE6 usage worldwide, from about 25 percent in mid-2009 to less than 10 percent within a year. 

ie6-stats-png.jpg

Worldwide IE6 usage after the YouTube warning banner went live.

Image: Chris Zacharias

The campaign consisted of a web banner displayed to IE6 users on YouTube beginning in July 2009. The banner hadn't been officially endorsed by Google, which had acquired YouTube in 2006 for $1.65bn and by 2009 had begun integrating it into the Google infrastructure. 

As former YouTube web developer Chris Zacharias details in a blog, the desire to kill off IE6 was that it had become "the bane of our web development team's existence". 

"At least one to two weeks every major sprint cycle had to be dedicated to fixing new UI that was breaking in IE6. Despite this pain, we were told we had to continue supporting IE6 because our users might be unable to upgrade or might be working at companies that were locked in," he explains.

At that stage IE6 users represented around 18 percent of YouTube's user base. Since they couldn't just drop IE6 support, Zacharias and his co-conspirators wondered what would happen if they just threatened to drop support. And so the banner plan was born.

It simply read: "We will be phasing out support for your browser soon. Please upgrade to one of these more modern browsers." The banner encouraged users to install Firefox 3.5, Internet Explorer 8, or Google Chrome.   

They were able to slip the web banner past Google's code-enforcement policies thanks to a special permission set called 'OldTuber' that was created by early YouTube engineers during YouTube's integration with Google. 

Anyone holding OldTuber permission could "commit code directly to the YouTube codebase, with only the most glancing of code reviews from anyone".  

The banner was noticed immediately by YouTube PR and lawyers too, who were concerned that suggesting Chrome as an alternate browser would attract attention from European regulators. The banner was picked up by tech media too.  

SEE: IT pro's guide to GDPR compliance (free PDF)

But on the day YouTube IE6 banner went live, Zacharias discovered that a very similar looking banner had gone live on Google Docs too when opened in IE6. It turned out a Docs engineer testing Docs in IE6 had seen the YouTube banner and immediately requested the same banner message for Docs.    

"Shortly thereafter, the Google Docs engineers whipped up their own IE6 banner and pushed it into production, presumably under the mistaken assumption that we had done our diligence and had received all of the necessary approvals," recalls Zacharias. 

"Between YouTube, Google Docs, and several other Google properties posting IE6 banners, Google had given permission to every other site on the web to add their own. IE6 banners suddenly started appearing everywhere. Within one month, our YouTube IE6 user base was cut in half and over 10 percent of global IE6 traffic had dropped off while all other browsers increased in corresponding amounts. The results were better than our web development team had ever intended."

So it seems Microsoft can thank these YouTube and Google developers for doing most of the work convincing IE6 users to upgrade to a newer browser before it kicked off the IE6 Countdown page in 2011. By that stage IE6 was used by less than one percent of the world's users. 

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