IE6: Retired but not dead yet

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, the browser accounted for 4.2% of all browsers used in March.

Microsoft never reached its goal, set in 2011 when it fired up the countdown site, of reducing IE6's global share under 1%. 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. company had expended significant PR capital vilifying 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," then 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 the country fell below 1%.

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

IE6's longevity was caused by two factors: Windows XP and China's largely-counterfeit 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 OS, in part because it was 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, until that country disposes of Windows XP, IE6 will maintain a too-healthy-for-Redmond user share. That day, however, seems far in the future, even with patches halted.

Without patches for IE6, the browser, like its OS partner, will be an easy target for cyber criminals, 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.

Those experts 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 OS and will continue to receive bug fixes for at least the next 12 months.

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

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