IE6: Retired but not dead yet

Microsoft fails to eradicate 2001 browser

Microsoft may have retired Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) last week, but it's still keeping track of the ancient browser's user share on a death watch-like website that's been running for more than three years.

IE6 launched in August 2001, about two months before Windows XP shipped. Microsoft issued the final security update for IE6 on April 8, when it patched two critical vulnerabilities in the browser, then retired the browser as its patron, Windows XP, also went to pasture.

According to the still-live IE6 countdown website, which draws data from analytics vendor Net Applications, IE6 accounted for 4.2% of all browsers used in March.

In 2011, when it fired up the countdown site, Microsoft set a goal of reducing IE6's global share to less than 1%. It has yet to hit that benchmark. Instead, the browser has hung in there: IE6's user share last month was actually about five times larger than that of IE7, its 2006 successor.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software vendor expended significant PR capital to vilify IE6 during a five-year campaign to persuade users to upgrade to newer versions. That campaign started in 2009, when a Microsoft manager famously said, "Friends don't let friends use IE6." It continued in 2010 with claims that the browser was past its expiration date. The same year, Microsoft sent flowers to a mock funeral hosted by a Denver-based Web design group. In early 2012, Microsoft declared IE6 dead in the U.S. after the browser's user share in this country fell below 1%.

As of March, IE6's user share in the U.S. was 0.2%.

IE6's longevity can be attributed to two factors: Windows XP and China's largely-counterfeit love affair with the operating system.

Because IE6 was tied to XP from the latter's inception, and because Windows XP has itself resisted retirement -- as of March, it powered 28% of the world's personal computers -- the browser endured even Microsoft's attempts to push it into extinction.

Secondly, China -- where XP remains the most popular PC operating system (in part because it has been widely pirated) -- remains the largest haven for IE6. Microsoft's countdown site claimed that 22% of the browsers used in the People's Republic last month were copies of IE6.

With three-fourths of the world's copies of IE6 running on Chinese PCs, IE6 will maintain a too-healthy-for-Redmond user share until China finally forsakes Windows XP. That day, however, seems far in the future, even with patches halted.

Since it will no longer be patched, IE6, like its OS partner, will be an easy target for cybercriminals, who, security experts have argued, will reverse-engineer future updates on still-supported versions, like IE8 and Windows 7, to find vulnerabilities in the older code.

Security professionals have urged Windows XP users, and by association those running IE6, to abandon Microsoft's browsers for rivals, like Google's Chrome and Mozilla's Firefox, which run on the aged operating system and will continue to receive bug fixes for at least the next 12 months.

IE6 use map
According to Microsoft's IE6 countdown website, China accounted for three-fourths of all copies of the 2001 browser used last month. (Image: Microsoft.)

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter, at @gkeizer, and on Google+, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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