Last night I had the unadulterated fun of updating a client’s blog. After handing off the reigns everything was going smoothly until some unknown combination of plug-ins was causing the mobile version of the site to be served to actual browsers. I was called in to triage the situation, nothing too dire, just two plug-ins with some configuration problems, once I told them to play nice, all was fine. It was then that I noticed there were 15 plug-in updates waiting and the whole WordPress install needed to be updated. So I took the time to take a backup and update everything, nothing too serious (for anyone that doesn’t use WordPress, updating is a one-click affair now) just the day to day stuff that needs to be done to keep the lights on.
This got me thinking about upgrading and Google’s decision to discontinue support for IE6. Some people are crying foul, saying that IE6 should still be supported, I’m decidedly of the I-hope-IE6-dies-in-a-fire camp. Lest this become a let’s bash on IE6 rant, which it so easily could, fucking broken box-model CSS1 piece of shit, let’s get back on track. The people that are upset about this are not technical luddites clinging to the familiar. Digg performed a user survey to figure out what they should do about IE6 and part of that was asking why people used IE6. Of IE6 users 70% responded that they either lacked administrative rights needed to upgrade IE6 or were told by someone at work that they could not upgrade. For anyone that has ever worked in Corporate America this should be no surprise to you. The nagging question though is why?
Why would the IT department, home of nerds always hell bent on trying out the latest and greatest, demand that you use a 9 year old piece of software? There are a number of reasons people point to.
- Mission Critical application is only compatible with IE6
- IE6 comes installed on all the machines
- IE6 is maintained by Microsoft, less of a headache for us
- Licensing / Partnership / Legal-mumbo-jumbo
If you fall into #4, I pity you. #3 is laughable because although the updates might be bundled with Windows Updates you aren’t saving yourself any administrative costs by putting the most targeted web browser for malware on all your machines. #2 is true, but if you are big enough for an IT department you probably have some way to push software to machines (or you could, and this is a shocking idea, trust your employees to choose a browser that fits their needs). I really, really, really want to talk about #1 though, because that is the point of this whole post.
I’ve worked at a number of places that used some sort of Web Application that was deemed critical that only worked right in IE6. This was then used as a justification for never moving past IE6, the timecard application won’t work or the spline flanger won’t have those cool IE6 exclusive filters. I understand that no one wants to expend resources on a “working” application pulling it into the future. But what is the longterm idea here, are you just going to use IE6 forever? This prevailing consensus seems to be ultimately self-defeating. Google recognizes this and as they try to push what can be done with the web they find themselves expending far too much time and energy on a nearly decade old piece of technology.
The nice part about fixing an application on IE6 is that you avoid some cost in updating it to make it work with other browsers like IE7. You could have spent a week or two adding in some CSS fixes and some markup changes and bingo bango IE7 now works like a charm. Instead you decide to use Corporate Fiat to force the continued use of IE6. Well now IE9 is looming around the corner and instead of paying a week here or a week there you now have a mountain of technical debt to pay down to get it to work.
Although IE6 is a convenient example, we can see this happen in all parts of the software development world. This program compiles when linked to an older version of the library but not this new one, I don’t have the time to figure it out, well just link in the old one. This is all well and fine to meet the deadline but you have just accrued some technical debt. Later when that library gets some great new speed-up or killer new feature, there you will be plodding along with version 0.91 because you can’t get it to work with the new hawtness. The problem is that these debts are not additive, they compound on one another and make what would be a simple conversion to 0.92 a nearly impossible conversion to 3.76.
Keep your tools up to date, keep an eye on what’s up and coming, you don’t have to be the first to jump on the latest and greatest but when a new version has proven itself and become the new standard move to it. Technology doesn’t stand still, if you don’t keep up with the latest stable releases you will find yourself in a tight spot trying to do an overnight re-engineer of your product. Take the easy baby steps from version to version so you don’t find yourself having to take a technological leap down the road.