Gmail to drop IE6 support this year

Microsoft supports rival's call to abandon creaky browser

Google will suspend Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) support for its Gmail and Calendar services later this year, the company said today.

The move will come at some point after March 1, when Google will start scaling back IE6 support for Google Docs and Google Sites. Google announced that decision on Friday, two weeks after the company admitted that hackers had breached its network and stolen information.

"We plan to stop supporting older browsers for the rest of the Google Apps suite, including Gmail, later in 2010," a Google spokesman confirmed today.

On Google's no-support list along with IE6 are Mozilla's Firefox 2.0, Apple's Safari 2.0 and Google's own Chrome 3.0.

On Tuesday, administrators of Google Apps accounts received e-mail from Google that informed them of the phasing out of IE6 support for Docs and Sites, and told them of similar steps for Gmail and Google Calendar. "Later in 2010, we will start to phase out support for these browsers for Google Mail and Google Calendar," the e-mail read.

The Google spokesman declined to provide a specific timetable for dropping IE6 support for Gmail and Calendar.

Gmail is the world's third-largest Web-based e-mail service, with an estimated 146 million users, according to 2009 data from Comscore. Microsoft's Windows Live Hotmail and Yahoo Mail are the No. 1 and No. 2 services, with approximately 343 million and 285 million users, respectively.

Google's urging users to leave IE6 is only the latest in a long line of major Web properties dropping support for the nearly-nine-year-old browser. So far, Facebook and Google's own YouTube have publicly prompted their users to upgrade to newer versions of IE, while German and French information security agencies have echoed those calls because of critical vulnerabilities in the old application.

A petition that calls on Britain's prime minister to order that country's government agencies to drop IE6 was also launched this week, and has already collected more than 5,000 signatures.

For its part, Microsoft has endorsed Google's advice to ditch IE6. "We support this recommendation to move off Internet Explorer 6," said Microsoft spokesman Brandon LeBlanc in an entry on the Windows Experience blog.

LeBlanc's statement was not that surprising, considering that Microsoft has in the past encouraged users to move beyond IE6. Last summer, IE's general manager was blunt: "Friends don't let friends use IE6," said Amy Bazdukas.

Yesterday, a Microsoft spokeswoman seconded Bazdukas' six-month-old advice, but also cautioned that not everyone can drop IE6. "Microsoft has consistently recommended that consumers upgrade to the latest version of our browser," she said. "[But] while we recommend Internet Explorer 8 to all customers, we understand we have a number of corporate customers for whom broad deployment of new technologies across their desktops requires more planning."

Calls for IE6's demise have intensified recently, fueled by the attacks that struck Google, Adobe and dozens of other Western companies several weeks ago. Those attacks exploited a then-unpatched vulnerability in IE6. As news of the bug spread, Germany's Federal Office for Information Security, known by its German initials of BSI, and France's CERTA each urged citizens to dump IE6.

Microsoft issued an emergency IE update Jan. 21 to patch the exploited vulnerability, as well as seven others.

Some security experts connected the dots between the IE6 exploits and Google's decision to withdraw support. "I'd have to guess that the China breach related to the IE6 zero-day had something to do with this decision," said Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Network Security.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, send e-mail to gkeizer@ix.netcom.com or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed .

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