Security risks mean IE6 must go

Internet Explorer 6 adoption highest in Asia, says Microsoft exec, who urges users to ditch the outdated browser version as it heightens risk of online threats and hinders modern Web advancements.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Determined to see the end of IE6, Microsoft is pouring resources into awareness campaigns as part of efforts to educate and encourage online citizens, particularly those in Asia, to ditch the 10-year-old Web browser or risk exposure to security attacks.

Redmond this week launched its latest and much-hyped Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), which plays a key role in Microsoft's plan to regain browser dominance.

Launched in 2001, the decade-old browser held about 11 percent share of the overall global market in February, according to Net Applications, but Microsoft is stepping up efforts to ensure its extinction.

Last month, it commenced an IE6 Countdown page dedicated to shrinking IE6 use to less than 1 percent worldwide, where part of its efforts include urging online users to put up banners on their sites or send out tweets to their friends to drop the browser version.

Jonathan Wong, Microsoft's Asia-Pacific IE product manager, told ZDNet Asia that the company hopes its latest campaign will help nudge users to upgrade, although he admitted that "as with any beloved product, some people have trouble letting go".

At its peak in 2002 and 2003, IE6--the default browser on Windows XP PCs--was "wildly popular" and attained a market share of nearly 90 percent worldwide, Wong said in an e-mail.

IE6 use highest in Asia
According to the countdown page, the biggest number of IE6 users hail from China at 34 percent, followed by South Korea at 24.8 percent, and India at 12.3 percent. Together, Asia-Pacific economies make up the biggest IE6 user base in the world.

Wong said this "no coincidence" since Asia has the most number of users still running Windows XP on their systems. Once users upgrade their operating system (OS), Microsoft is confident they will also turn to the latest Internet Explorer browser, he added.

IE9 is not supported on Windows XP.

Another reason for IE6's buoyancy in Asia is piracy, which Wong described as "endemic to the region" where a significant proportion of the online population use counterfeit software.

James Roy, senior analyst from China Market Research Group (CMR), agreed that pervasive software piracy is the main reason IE6 is still widely used in China. The majority of PC users in the country continue to operate pirated versions of Win XP, driving the presence of IE6 which is the default Web browser for the OS, he explained in an e-mail interview.

In fact, IE6 adoption is so widespread that a large number of Web sites, including many government sites, were developed to run only on IE6, Roy added.

The analyst noted that Microsoft will face an uphill challenge convincing China to dump IE6. First, Chinese PC users were already hesitant to upgrade to IE7 because it introduced a feature that required users to verify the authenticity of their OS. Although Microsoft later scrapped this in 2007, Chinese online users remained wary of the possibility their system would connect to Windows Update and be shut out because "they know they are not using the real thing", he said.

Furthermore, there are already dozens of Chinese browsers, including Maxthon, TT and 360, that have emerged which are essentially "IE6 clones" with new skins, Roy pointed out.

According to Wong, apart from its IE6 Countdown page, Microsoft has been actively urging users to drop IE6 for some time now. Previous initiatives include delivering flowers to an IE6 funeral in March last year and an Australian campaign in May 2010 that compared IE6 to expired milk, which Wong said was "quite successful". IE6 use in Australia has since dipped to 3.2 percent, according to the Countdown site.

He added that Microsoft is planning to adapt the expired milk theme for other parts of the region, including New Zealand and Southeast Asia, with the hopes of achieving similar results.

Security most pressing issue
Asked to explain the intensified efforts to stem IE6 use, Wong said: "The reality is that the security of everyday Internet users and companies is at risk the longer they continue to use IE6." Cybercriminals have advanced leaps and bounds since IE6's launch in 2001 and are deploying increasingly sophisticated methods to attack unsuspecting users, he added.

The Microsoft executive emphasized it is important to keep browsers current because they are users' first line of defense against online threats. Redmond's crop of newer browsers such as IE8 and IE9 are embedded with smartscreen filter technology which blocks nearly all socially-engineered malware attacks, said Wong, citing research from NSS Labs.

"IE6 is simply not equipped to deal with such threats and it is in the best interests of all users to upgrade now," he said.

He acknowledged that it is an "understandable reality" that some companies have held back from upgrading due to cost constraints, but noted that when the security of an entire network is at risk, the benefits of upgrading to newer, more secure Web browsers far outweigh the associated cost.

Furthermore, whenever new forms of online threats emerge, users whose PCs still run on old technologies and browsers usually end up being the weakest link in the chain of internal security, he cautioned.

Hindering Web advances
Security reasons aside, Wong pointed out that upgrading from IE6 is beneficial to Web developers and "to the future of the Internet as a whole".

CMR's Roy noted that the decision to stick to IE6 basically means "Web development remains stuck in an earlier generation", since developers cannot incorporate innovative features in e-commerce and Web sites since IE6 would not be able to support these.

In addition, employees on IE6 may be less productive and efficient because the browser lacks time-saving features such as tabbed browsing as well as the ability to use the address bar to do fast searches, the analyst pointed out.

Web developer Fauzi Rachman concurred, noting that working with IE6 is "very demanding". The senior software engineer at marketing agency, The Upper Storey, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that IE6's security is not as sophisticated as more recent browser versions, and is also unable to support modern Web standards such as HTML5.

"This limits the extent to which we can create beautiful and secure Web sites and applications", Rachman explained. He added that with newer browsers such as IE9, Web developers can tap significantly improved hardware acceleration elements to improve the speed and graphics quality of Web applications, without spending hours working out content compatibility.

Wong added that when a client pressures developers to build Web sites that work on IE6, they have to comply by using workarounds and this wastes time and money.

No enforced update
Microsoft is aiming for IE6 usage to shrink to less than 1 percent worldwide, but has not put a timeline on when it hopes to achieve this. When quizzed, Wong could not give a specific deadline but noted that Microsoft's product support for IE6 follows the lifecycle of the OS with which it was shipped, or in this case, Win XP. Customers using the OS will have to transition to Service Pack 3 by July 2010 and are eligible to receive support for IE6 until April 2014, he said.

Microsoft clarified with ZDNet Asia that while there is no official timeline on when IE6 users will be remotely forced to update their browser, anyone who chooses to continue the use of IE6 beyond April 2014 will no longer be eligible to access Microsoft support.

Wong said: "We have adopted a policy of educating and informing users around the world about the pitfalls of sticking with IE6, and the consequent benefits of upgrading to newer Web browsers.

"[Users] are free to make their own choice, but we hope to raise global consciousness on the topic through our current campaign. This is the approach that will reap longer term benefits in making users are aware of the fact that they need to upgrade their Web browsers regularly."

Other third-party sites are also promoting the demise of the antiquated browser, including Bring Down IE6, IE6 Funeral, I Dropped IE6 and IE6 No More.

Editorial standards