Why StumbleUpon's Use of IE6 is Hurting America

As a SaaS company producing applications for the web, we, at Genius.com, take browser compatibility very seriously. Back in 2006, we officially supported Internet Explorer 6 and Firefox 1. Over the subsequent three years we’ve evolved to where we presently maintain compatibility with IE6, IE7, Firefox 3, Safari 3, and Safari 4. Supporting five browsers is made easier by using the YUI and Ext-JS javascript libraries but is still, by no means, a trivial task. This task is made significantly more difficult by one of those browsers, IE6, being extraordinarily finicky. A conservative estimate would be that 80% of the time we spend on browser compatibility is solely on working out rendering and interaction errors in IE6.

The World in August 2001

To give an idea of how long ago August 27, 2001 (when IE6 was initially released) is:

  • Tool’s Lateralus record had just come out, as had Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American record (renamed Jimmy Eat World after the September 11 terrorist attacks)
  • The iPod did not exist
  • Windows XP was still 2 months from retail release and Longhorn/Vista/Mojave was still a twinkle in Steve Ballmer’s eye
  • The current version of Adobe Photoshop was 6.0
  • Enron’s stock price was $40/share

Why GeniusPro and GeniusEnterprise Support IE6

If it was up to our development team, we would have stopped supporting IE6 years ago. However, since several important customers are stuck on IE6, we are forced to maintain compatibility with a browser approaching eight years of age. What other eight year old tech product are you still using?

We don’t fault our users for using IE6. Many companies have internal applications that only work in IE6 due to its ubiquity (97% market share in July 2003) when those applications were initially developed and they thus rely on non-standards compliant features only supported by IE6’s JScript. For example, during a college internship at imaging giant Radnet I ran into such a situation. 90% of Radnet imaging centers used a billing and medical history application called IDX. IDX only supported IE6. While this was a pain, it was better than the other 10% of sites that still used a DOS based application called Radman. Brand new LCD screen machines running a DOS application. This is not a situation unique to Radnet or IDX. While we wish everyone would upgrade to a current browser, we know that this is not always feasible. Thus, as a SaaS company, the sales and marketing products we sell support IE6.

Why The eng.genius.com Blog Does Not Support IE6

This blog, however, is entirely under our control. Thus, we launched the blog with a WordPress plugin, the Anti Internet Explorer 6 Plugin, that conditionally meta-refreshes to a static page if someone has a version of IE less than or equal to IE6. We’re part of a growing content provider constituency that is taking proactive measures to stop the pain. It includes blogs, SaaS applications, social networking sites, and media. While we know it will inconvenience some people who, by way of corporate policies, have no way to upgrade IE or download another, better browser, we feel that it’s a necessary pain that the internet community needs to inflict to force companies to upgrade to a modern browser or at least give users an additional browser that can be used for sites that do not depend on IE6. It will help web developers and make companies that depend on IE6 more secure.

An example of one such visitor who became frustrated by our IE6 policy:

www.genius.com has decided to make the content unavailable to those of us running IE6. Why am I still running IE6? Because <INSERT COMPANY> financial accounting system requires it.

The page renders just fine, and I start reading the story. However, a few seconds into my reading, some widget loaded by the page re-directs to http://www.timo-ernst.net/stop-the-ie6/ and puts up a commercial for a newer browser.

I respectfully suggest discouraging sending any more links to broken pages like this one.

Another example from news.ycombinator.com:

Seeing as I’m at work and can’t upgrade from IE 6.0 I can’t view this site. Ahh Well.

We truly are sorry that we add to your pain by not allowing views from IE6 but we hope you understand that it is for a greater good.

StumbleUpon and IE6

How the "Extending Java Semaphores..." post appeared in StumbleUpon

How the 'Extending Java Semaphores...' post appeared in StumbleUpon

StumbleUpon is a different story. While it may seem that the only possible problems with StumbleUpon and IE6 are problems they create with bugs on their site, we found out the hard way that this is not true.

Drew Stephens added our April 20 post on Java Semaphores to StumbleUpon at about 6:45PM PDT and then we waited to measure its effect on site traffic. The total number of visits continued to climb but our referral count from StumbleUpon remained at 0. As night set in, traffic to the site slowed and our referral count from StumbleUpon stayed at 0. Shortly after the day rolled over to be April 21 in San Mateo, hits from StumbleUpon began to pour in. By 1:15AM PDT, over 80 visitors had come from StumbleUpon. Interested in what may have caused this sudden burst of late night interest, I found the post on StumbleUpon and immediately noticed the apparent cause. The title had changed from being the URL of the post (the default value) to be “Stop the ie6”. Ah ha! The reason our post was so popular was because people thought it was about stopping IE6. That also explains the low star rating, after all, that post (unlike this one) is decidedly NOT about ie6.

Why Our StumbleUpon Posts All Have The Title “Stop the ie6”

You might be asking, “If the post is not about IE6, why did StumbleUpon report the title as being ‘Stop the ie6’?”

That’s a very good question and the answer took some digging (no, not the site with the new annoying StumbleUpon-esque page cloaking) to uncover. Upon greping through our access logs for “74.201.117.” (StumbleUpon.com pings to 74.201.117.232) I found:
74.201.117.226 - [21/Apr/2009:01:49:04] "GET /blog/2009/04/20/javas-semaphore-resizing/ HTTP/1.1" 200 50966
74.201.117.226 - [21/Apr/2009:01:50:10] "GET /blog/2009/04/20/javas-semaphore-resizing/ HTTP/1.1" 200 50966
74.201.117.226 - [21/Apr/2009:07:46:29] "GET /blog/2009/04/20/javas-semaphore-resizing/ HTTP/1.1" 200 50823
74.201.117.226 - [21/Apr/2009:07:46:30] "GET /blog/wp-content/themes/default/style.css HTTP/1.1" 200 15777
74.201.117.226 - [21/Apr/2009:07:46:30] "GET /blog/wp-content/themes/default/print.css HTTP/1.1" 200 2329
74.201.117.226 - [21/Apr/2009:07:46:30] "GET /blog/wp-content/themes/default/helpers.js HTTP/1.1" 200 284
...

Clearly the first two requests were simply to verify the post’s existence during submission by Drew. The following requests appear to indicate that StumbleUpon has some sort of batch job that took roughly six hours to pick up the post for full indexing.

This, coupled with two additional nuggets of data:

  1. GoogleAnalytics only showing one visitor to our site with IE6 out of our first 111 visitors on the 21st
  2. Our installation of the “Anti Internet Explorer 6 Plugin” for WordPress

lead me to one logical conclusion: StumbleUpon uses IE6 or spoofs IE6 when crawling pages.

Unsatisfied with a mere untested hypothesis, I did some additional digging. I setup a page that does nothing but record the current request as stored in the php $_SERVER super global variable. I then registered this page with StumbleUpon and watched the generated logs. At 9:41 am PDT, during the registration process, I saw a request hit the page:

[HTTP_USER_AGENT] => Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US; rv:1.8.1.11) Gecko/20071127 Firefox/2.0.0.11
[REMOTE_ADDR] => 74.201.117.226
[REQUEST_TIME] => 1240332078

At 9:50 am PDT I saw another request hit the page:

[HTTP_USER_AGENT] => Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1)
[REMOTE_ADDR] => 74.201.117.226
[REQUEST_TIME] => 1240332623

Thus confirming my speculation. StumbleUpon not only performs their picture grab/screen capture/title grab with a tool based on IE6 (or one that at least spoofs it), but also uses/spoofs an unsupported version of Firefox (2.0.0.11) for the initial confirmation ping. This is not only disappointing, but error prone. More and more sites are leaving IE6 support behind and so, if we assume that StumbleUpon’s screen capture tool embeds IE6 for the visualization, the screen grabs the tool takes are likely to be less and less accurate.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite April Fools gag and leave you with a screenshot of four eng.genius.com posts on StumbleUpon:

First four posts, all four named "Stop the ie6"

First four posts, all four named "Stop the ie6"

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  • http://www.timo-ernst.net Timo

    For those who work in a company and are forced to use the Internet Explorer 6, I can only give one advise:

    Go, visit your administrator, bring him a cup of coffee and ask him gently to either upgrade the ie6 to version 8 or, even better, replace it with a better browser, like Firefox, for example.
    To be honest, an administrator, whose client’s are still using the ie6, is not really doing a great jop. Keeping the software up-to-date is one of the primary jobs of an admin.
    The more complaints the responsible people get, the bigger is the chance that they will upgrade your browser.

    Thanks to Genius Blog people for supporting this project!

  • Abraham Estrada
  • Khoji

    Well, frankly, I do fault customers who use IE6. In fact, using IE6 in enterprise should be a firing offense. It is irresponsible, grossly negligent and highly dangerous. Anyone who uses IE6 is exposing their enterprise to a huge number of unnecessary risks — no insurance company in its right mind will any longer pay for any damages caused by using IE6, just as they will not pay for any other damages caused by gross negligence.

    In addition to this, IE6 users are also damaging many others, because large numbers of their computers will be hijacked and turned into botnet zombies distributing spam, viruses and worms.

    The fact that you continue to support IE6 is not helping these people, it is actually exposing them and everyone else on the net to more risks for a longer time, you should really stop immediately. The fact that they have old web applications that only work in IE6 is no longer any excuse. Either update your applications or disconnect all your computers from the Internet if you feel any kind of responsibility as a global citizen.

  • James

    Installing Firefox does not break web apps requiring IE6. Users and companies need to understand IE6 shouldn’t be accessing anything outside the LAN, even if only for security reasons.

  • http://www.ryandoherty.net Ryan Doherty

    I’m completely against redirecting users on IE6. The Internet should be open and available to anyone on any platform. Blocking content is a terrible way to ‘force’ people to upgrade (who may not be able to). I understand supporting IE6 100% isn’t feasible (and at Mozilla we’re working on ways to deal with it), but don’t block users! This will only serve to piss them off about *your* service, not their computer, browser or IT department.

    Yes, people should upgrade and we should tell them to. But please don’t block them from accessing content.

  • bob

    I go with IE6, I always install IE6 over any computer I refurb. I have used IE7, it is a pig and it sucks. IE8, yeah right. If I have to use IE anything, it will be IE6. Yes, quite a few proggies demand IE and not Firefox, unfortunately.

  • jack

    Let’s use an analogy. Would it be responsible for drivers of old polluting cars that spew out black smoke to continue driving them, if the reason was that ‘the majority of the people still drive those cars’?

    IE6 is infamous for its security holes and non-compliance to web standards. Wouldn’t it be irresponsible to continue supporting IE6 knowing that it is potentially dangerous to use for many online activities such as banking?

    Non-compliance to web standards holds back the much needed progress of the young field of web development. Unlike other industries, web development and the general software industry is not mature. It needs to move forward, and as quickly as possible. Holding back progress of web standards (including accessibility standards for disabled people) and accepting security holes in a broken piece of software seems irresponsible.

  • http://-- lokendra

    ie6 is not a good browser it have many issue in testing of the web so i request to microsoft to stop the ie6

    regards
    lokendra

  • Dwight E. Howell

    If you are trying to do serious research or just use the web quickly and effectively not having tabbed browsing is the pits.

  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/U612575 Timothy (TRiG)

    I suppose a simple solution would be to use a script to load a different template for IE6, and to not bother spending too much time making it look nice (no CSS at all). And to explain why.

    HTTP Vary: User-Agent

    TRiG.

  • Chris Conser