Paul Irish

Making the www great

The Skinny on IE's Update Policy

Every month, WebKit, Firefox and Opera are shipping incredible features; IE10 is also going to settle up and even out those HTML5 Test scores (plus some features they may debut, like Grid Layout!). But while these features are becoming available in some browsers, most of us can’t use them because we have a sizable audience who have been left behind on old browsers. A while ago I made a big fuss about IE’s lack of solid upgrade path and how it meant we’d end up with 10 major versions of IE in the wild. But luckily, things took a turn for the better when Microsoft announced a new autoupdate policy for IE.

I wanted to take a moment to explain what this IE update policy means for us web developers.

The big change is how IE now interacts with Windows Update: Before you had to opt-in to have “Recommended” updates installed automatically. It’s likely few folks did. Now, IE upgrades are shipping as “Important” and this class of updates are defaulted to install automatically. A user can still opt-out and immediately after the announcement of this feature they also published details on how enterprises can opt-out. But still, this is a good move, it helps.

The policy manifests as:

  1. Windows XP holdouts on IE6 or IE7 get the boot up to IE8
  2. Windows Vista and 7 users still on IE7 or even on IE8 get shunted up to IE9
  3. IE10 only works on Win7+, and while no policy has been published for Win7 users, it’s likely any IE8/IE9 users will be moved up to IE10.

A very smart policy call was that this update policy also includes all of China, which is important because most of their Windows installs are not genuine. Microsoft decided they should get the IE bump anyway, which is great because China has been dominated by IE6 and IE8 for ages.

This update procedure was scheduled to start in Australia and Brazil in January 2012. If we look at what happened in Brazil, we have a good shift of users but it’s flattened out with a nontrivial amount of left behind users: (see the two blue lines in the chart below)

(Source: StatCounter Global Stats - Browser Version (Partially Combined) Market Share)

Australia has a similar swap of users from IE8 to IE9 but IE8 still remains steady above 10% overall share there.

Microsoft is in a tough spot in that they have enterprise customers who have developed their intranet applications in an extremely poor manner and they break outside of old browsers. But we’re going to need some more pushes from them and us, the developer community, to get in a better state. We want to develop for the web platform of now, not the platform of four years ago.

TL;DR: There is now a policy in place, but evidence indicates that it’s not as effective in eradicating these zombie browsers as what we need. Personal opinion: we need to do better.

Hopefully this clarifies a bit about the mechanics of the update procedure. Please do correct me if anything is wrong and I’ll update the post.

2012.08.07: Added TLDR. 2012.07.02: To see this update policy in better context it’s probably useful to Read this Developer’s Guide to browser adoption rates and check the charts from Ars Technica below.

2012.09.21: Months later, the net effect of the update campaign is complete. It pushed a whole bunch of users up to IE9 but IE8 usage remains solid. :( WinXP is a big problem here, obviously. We have to explore other ways to move these users off a zombie browser…

(Consider the two blue lines)

Source: StatCounter Global Stats - Browser Version (Partially Combined) Market Share