Being someone that’s interested in having as many people using browsers with the latest CSS and JavaScript implementations, I’ve been struggling to figure out why Firefox adoption rates and even Internet Explorer 7 adoption rates are flat lining. Have we basically converted everyone that had a problem with Internet Explorer 6?

And that’s when it got me thinking. What were the problems to the masses that got them switching over in the first place? Last year I wrote a bit about The Change Function, a concept that proposes that people move over to new products based on the relationship of two variables: Perceived Crisis and Total Perceived Pain of Adoption. And at the height of the Firefox craze, there was a a very real crisis across the Internet and it came in the form of viruses, pop-ups and spyware.

PayPal Integration

Between 2003 - 2004, we were at the peak of the crisis with the Internet suffering from spam terrorism. During the height of conversions, Firefox was one of the first popular solutions for making the web usable again. Yes, it loaded faster and sure it had tabbed browsing, but the biggest difference of opening a web site in Firefox versus Internet Explorer 6 was that you weren’t ashamed to do so around children and colleagues at work.

Toolbars Killed the Firefox Star

In 2005 something happened. Pop-ups and spyware started to become less of a problem. Here’s a graph courtesy of Google Trends that shows the decline in users searching for popup and pop-up over the last few years.

Popup, Pop-up

Firefox was just one solution of many that were released by everyone and their mom to help make the Internet safe again from popups and spyware. There were countless programs created to help fight the good fight. Even AOL pitched in, releasing AOL version 9.0 and AOL Spyware Protection in 2004. My guess is that Google Toolbar, Yahoo Toolbar, MSN Search Toolbar and Windows Live Toolbar were probably the most popular and they all patched up IE6’s biggest problem (in the eyes of users) by blocking popups.

In regards to the spyware hysteria, here’s a look at the activity involving searches for the term spyware in relation to the popup searches in Google Trends:

Popup, Pop-up, Spyware

To give you some context that might explain things, at the end of 2004, Microsoft finally released Windows XP Service Pack 2 and if you look at the feature list, you’ll notice the first one highlighted is “Internet Explorer Pop-up Blocker.” In January 2005, Microsoft launched their Anti-Spyware and Anti-Virus Tools, which was offered for free and seeing that it came from a familiar (and some-what) trusted source—it too, was downloaded like gangbusters.

And so we shouldn’t be surprised that in the fall of 2005, a number of reports started coming in from bloggers wondering about the slowing of Firefox adoption. By the end of the first quarter of 2006, we can see that spyware was on the slow decline in the minds of users of the Internet. By the time Internet Explorer 7 came out in the fall of 2006, the crisis was basically over and the masses were already content customizing their favorite web 1.0 application (MySpace), which worked just fine in IE6.

One might even argue that the arrival of IE7 was way too late and probably explains why the browser’s adoption rate (and I’m guessing here) follows the adoption rates of Vista and those who are willing to let SP2 just install it for them. What’s interesting is that Microsoft should be thanking Google. The company that had done the most to encourage Firefox adoption, might have also done the most harm with their, well…excellent toolbar for IE6. In fact, Google’s toolbar and desktop search applications pretty much launched the whole toolbar battle that’s been raging between the trinity (Yahoo, Google and Microsoft). My bet is that for every toolbar that was installed on Internet Explorer 6, it effectively halted the need for that user to convert to a different browser.

The Effect of iTunes and BitTorrent

If you can remember, the primary delivery mechanism of a number of spyware and popup programs was through file sharing networks like Kazaa and BearShare. The need of the public to search and download millions of songs and videos (and porn) was exploited by numbers of malicious advertisers and web sites by uploading tons of self-installing programs disguised as desirable media. File sharing programs themselves even turned out to be spyware.

In April of 2003, which was in the middle of this crisis, Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, a legal alternative to downloading music that people seemed to be happy to see just work. It took a few years, but by the summer of 2005 over half a billion songs had been downloaded through the iTunes. Following their lead, a number of music download services launched and the demand for music and videos was met with a safe, perceptively cheap and extremely easy outlet.

In addition to a legal alternative, traditional file sharing networks were also being replaced by a new mechanism for media transfer: BitTorrent. What’s interesting about the torrent community, is their dedication to quality. The most popular torrents are carefully cataloged and meticulously labeled and compressed. It’s a relatively safer community than traditional file sharing networks based on Gnutella clients and the worst thing you’ll come across in your downloads are poisoned torrents from HBO.

While Bram Cohen, implemented the first versions back in 2001, it wasn’t until 2003 that the protocol became hot when it was combined with RSS to create broadcatching. Popularized by Steve Gilmor’s article, which was written for Ziff-Davis (they own PC Magazine and a number of other popular media sites), the idea that you can just subscribe to your favorite shows and watch them the day after they aired captured the imaginations of a large number of users hoping for the convenience of TIVO without the costs.

And so, in addition to spyware being blocked by toolbars and other helpful applications, the channel by which spyware and viruses were infecting browsers and computers, was replaced by alternatives that produced clean downloads. The crisis that gave birth to Firefox’s rising popularity was extinguished on two fronts and from unexpected sources.

What about Safari?

In regards to Safari, the increased adoption there (like Internet Explorer 7) is probably tied to the increased market share Apple’s computers are making in the PC market. I find it interesting that some people think Apple’s release of Safari for Windows is a serious attempt to gain browser adoption on the personal computer. The thing is nothing has changed. The factors that lead users to switch to Firefox aren’t around anymore and so what real hopes does Apple have for people to switch to Safari?

Safari is entering a crowded space and is far from being above and beyond better than its competition. Let’s face it, Firefox is a great browser with a great development team behind it and beating it on quality and innovation will be tough. If anyone understands the importance of a vacuum or crisis to cause users to switch, Apple certainly does. The iPod, iTunes Music Store and iPhone were are released in those conditions. Knowing this going in, I’d like to argue that Steve Jobs has no real passion about growing Safari usage on Windows. If you listen to the keynote when he announced the beta, he was even half-hearted about his enthusiasm for Safari making some headroom in the market.

No, browsing on the Internet on a personal computer doesn’t suck anymore. Where it does suck, however, is on the cell phone. Safari isn’t leaps and bounds better than Firefox or IE7, but it is ridiculously better than every mobile browser out on the market today. So the serious strategy, I think, for Safari is to grow it like iTunes, which piggybacked off the iPod. Make the hardware associated with it (iPhone) number one in its market and then by it being the default and only browser on the system (one of the adoption factors I list below), you spread your software better than if you were to try and compete directly with other vendors. Considering the fanfare iPhone has received so far, it’s hard to believe it won’t take off like the iPod.

Here’s what I think about the release of Safari on the Windows platform. It has less to do with attempting to actually be a competitor in the browser space as it does with giving developers a tool to accurately test and build iPhone applications. Steve Jobs said there wouldn’t be an SDK for the iPhone because he essentially just announced it with the release of Safari 3 for both operating systems, which is, for the most part, exactly what he said. Apple is betting that Safari is going to be the #1 mobile browser because the iPhone is probably going to be the #1 cell phone. And if the world is moving towards an Internet powered by mobile broadband, then developers (knowing how the story went with IE6) are going to make sure their sites and web applications works on the #1 platform.

In Conclusion

My theory of browser adoption is built on the foundation that your typical user is incredibly lazy and hates change. There are really only two factors driving browser adoption.

  • Was it the default browser on the system?
  • Does it make browsing the Internet suck?

Now, you may think IE6 obviously makes browsing the Internet suck because it doesn’t have tabs and tends to implement CSS and JavaScript poorly. But that’s because if you’re reading this site, you’re probably a designer or developer. Remember: ugly, buggy and slow aren’t enough to make users think it sucks enough to switch (think MySpace and Windows). In hindsight, the best thing to happen to Firefox was probably the rise of file sharing networks, spyware and pop-ups. Basically, everything that made the web suck. Everything that made the web a safer place to browse, made Firefox less relevant and quelled the urgency that made an alternative to IE6 a necessity.

What I find most interesting is that web developers (specifically those of the standards and Web 2.0 variety, which includes myself), were so excited by the Firefox momentum that we were convinced that it was a revolution. We actually thought the masses were starting to believe Internet Explorer was Satan incarnate. Just goes to show that it has to be in your face popups of wangs and cooters to make you download something different.

HTML Form Builder
Kevin Hale

On the Tenacity of Internet Explorer 6 by Kevin Hale

This entry was posted 3 years ago and was filed under Features.
Comments are currently closed.


  1. Thijs · 3 years ago

    Check this trend as well, quite self-explanatory

  2. Kevin Hale · 3 years ago

    Wow, that’s an even better graph illustrating some of my points. Thanks for sharing that.

  3. Udi · 3 years ago

    Nice theory! I’m tempted to create a new type of spyware/malware/whatever that only attacks IE6. It might be easier than making my website work with the damn thing.

    btw - You should add keys to the trends graphs.

  4. Peter Gasston · 3 years ago

    I think there are two main reasons for the persistence of IE6:

    1. IT Departments. On some large corporate websites I run, IE6 still accounts for over 90% of unique visitors. Many very large companies IT departments just haven’t got around to upgrading yet.

    2. Microsoft. Although IE7 is offered as an upgrade via the automatic download system, there’s been no notification to the public at large that it’s available. They should take a leaf out of Mozilla’s book and let people know that IE6 is coming to the end of its lifecycle and that an upgrade is available, as with the latest release of the Firefox 1.* series.

  5. pawel · 3 years ago

    Browser stats in Poland ( IE combined 62.7% (IE7 8.7%) Gecko combined 31.3% (Fx2 22.7%) Opera 5.8%.

    Just to show that the gap between IE and other browsers is not so huge everywhere in the world :)

  6. Kevin Hale · 3 years ago

    Yeah, Google doesn’t insert them in automatically because they use html. I’ve gone ahead and modified the graphs to include them here since most people probably won’t click them to actually look closer at the data.

  7. Joshua Curtiss · 3 years ago

    Bravo, well said. I agree with every aspect of your article.

  8. Kilian Valkhof · 3 years ago

    Very interesting article, this is indeed the main reason people switched over to Firefox. IE7 upgrades mostly occur as “accidents”, people installing updates and suddenly having IE7. Nothing more is making people upgrade to it, I’m afraid.

    However, I disagree with your assumption that the Iphone will become the standard for mobile browsing. I think the Iphone still isn’t the killer app for mobile browsing. It’s coming close, but it’s use will still be marginal. Perhaps with a second or third generation Iphone, people will really start using the web on the go.

  9. Andy Kant · 3 years ago

    Interesting stuff…I personally switched due to the virus outbreak and stayed for the extensibility.

    Stating that Windows is ugly, buggy, and slow in the same sentence as MySpace is a bit harsh though; it isn’t that bad (my MBP has crashed probably twice as much as my XP machine in the last 6 months).

  10. Dave Medlock · 3 years ago

    Interesting article. I tend to consider myself a “late bloomer” when it comes to adopting new browsers and OSes, mainly because I’m cynical and set in my ways.

    I honestly think that the biggest obstacle to new browser adoption is the general public’s resistance to change. Everyone is constantly bombarded by one company or another telling them that X product is better than Y product and eventually, we tune it out. We focus on getting our work done and anything that may slow us down gets moved to the back of the line. I still haven’t upgraded my machine to IE7. I use Firefox for testing out CSS compliant designs. IE7 is on my laptop and it works quite well. I personally don’t notice much of a performance difference between 6 and 7 and Firefox. To me, it’s just “tabs” or “no tabs” and “box model hack” or “no box model hack”.

  11. Fred · 3 years ago

    What a great article. I only wish I had more than two thumbs to raise.

  12. BillyG · 3 years ago

    Wow Dave, there are so many differences / reasons for using FF it’s not funny! I carry a thumbdrive around just so I can use my FF profile everywhere I go. Having to use IE7 on a client’s machine really is a step backwards.

  13. Ash Haque · 3 years ago

    Great article dude

    Myself, I was always happy with Internet Explorer until I started designing / developing web pages… and then yeah…

  14. Mark Priestap · 3 years ago

    Very insightful.

    I use FF mostly just because of the Web Developer toolbar. Other than that it’s slower and has clunky default buttons compared to Safari. I like to play with shiny glossy things. Go Safari!

    How bout a Web Dev Toolbar for Safari?

  15. raúl · 3 years ago

    My weblog looks entirely broken in IE6. I just don’t want to spend time make it up “exclusively” for IE6.

  16. Mary-Ann Horley · 3 years ago

    I would imagine the amount of pirated copies of Windows has an influence, Microsoft won’t let you download IE7 for an unauthenticated copy of XP.

  17. Clemens · 3 years ago

    What do we learn? We should move on from creating nice and semantic websites and go for popups, tons of advertisement and broken pages in IE. There are tons of possibilities to show these only in IE6 (or we might want to include IE7) and re-create the need for users to switch ;) Seriously though, what would get more people switching is the highlighting of the correct firefox plugins. There’s lots of functionality that people might like, which might in fact even be a reason to switch entirely.

  18. James Walker · 3 years ago

    I believe IE6 is around largely because of the huge number of non-techy savvy people who a) despite Windows Update never install any updates and b) are still sitting on a slow dial-up connection that can’t possible update without a huge amount of hassle…

  19. Joost · 3 years ago

    @ Mark Priestap forget about webdev toolbar (well, keep it installed) but go download firebug :-) you’ll love it, i’m sure

  20. Software programmer · 3 years ago

    Is it because there is still no viable alternative yet

  21. Eric · 3 years ago

    Fascinating info. Important thing to consider: users do not consider the web interesting. Users consider what they FIND on the web to be interesting.

    Just like regular-everyday-people who own your average, normal car. They’re not interested in what’s under the hood (except when it breaks). They want to pick the color and have a couple convenient features inside.

    But for the most part, the important thing about a car is that it gets a driver where he or she wants to go.

    Die-hard car people - who love engine details and all the extras - are kind of like web developers. The level of interest will never be the same as the average consumer. But that is not the average consumer’s fault.

  22. chris Hansen · 3 years ago

    stats from w3c indicate that usage of IE6 is declining - albeit much more slowly than you’d think. firefox is gaining… along with IE7. but at at rate like this, it’s still going to take a while until IE6 is under 5%…

  23. Jerry Springer · 3 years ago

    I find that there are so many users… esp. in Corporate America… that truly have no idea what they are missing, since as far as they know, IE6 works.

    That and their IT depts are not allowing the mass upgrade, due to compatibility issues.

    I personally would rather eat food off the sidewalk, than use IE6, but that’s because I know better.

  24. Armin · 3 years ago

    I think you’re forgetting the corporate world. A lot of IT departments do not allow their users to install non-standard applictions (i.e. Firefox) and also block the upgrade to IE7. For the simple reason that a vast number of internal applications only work on IE6 and would need to be upgraded to be able to run on IE 7 (or any other browser for that matter). Sometimes they don’t have the resources to upgrade internally developed applications, sometimes they don’t get the budget to upgrade external applications. Result? IE6 stays. Simple as that.

  25. Drj · 3 years ago

    Excellent writeup. Very interesting read

  26. André · 3 years ago

    Never forget that the number of people browsing the web is so immense that it takes a lot more than simply converting web-professionals and tech-savvy people. My father is pretty savvy and I still haven’t converted him, mostly for the reasons you just wrote.

    There’s a whole world outside of “our” niche… The long tail of browser users, if you will. :)

  27. Adrian Turner · 3 years ago


  28. Robin · 3 years ago

    What about what John Gruber’s theory that Safari for Windows it’s all about money?

    Sure letting Windows developers design for the iPhone is a plus, but the iPhone Safari app isn’t even Safari 3! It might be updated when Safari 3 is out of beta, but it certainly isn’t a good design platform right now.

  29. Roger Herbert · 3 years ago

    I would have expected corporate IT software policies and pirated copies of XP to be major factors in IE6’s persistence. Is there any info or stats to confirm deny that?

  30. Tor Løvskogen · 3 years ago

    Calling windows ugly, buggy and slow is just plain stupid.

  31. Casper · 3 years ago

    Interestingly, I find alot of people around me installing firefox after accidentally upgrading to IE7.

    They get confused by the changed interface and return to something that has a user interface more similar to their old internet explorer

  32. Erwin Heiser · 3 years ago

    I’m always amazed when I’m in clients offices and they’re still running IE6. I always thought this was an automated update but apparently even then it doesn’t happen. Another factor is definitely the large amount of pirated Win XP installs, the IE7 installer checks if your copy of WinXP is valid before proceeding. Then there is the large amount of schools/businesses still running Win2000 who will never get IE7. Bottom line is: if Microsoft wants to kill IE6 they’ll have to make it available for all the aforementioned users. And I agree with some people above, the UI for IE7 is the worst I’ve ever seen on any browser…

  33. Emrys · 3 years ago

    Nice Article thanks for sharing. Think the main reason IE still gets used as a default is that most people use windows. it comes with IE and scarily enough a lot of people out there don’t even know there is an alternative. Anyway Some Stats on my website which is in South Africa. Site is down this month so didnt use new stats. site: Operating Stystems: Windows: 91% MacOS: 4% Linux: 3%

    Browsers: MS Internet Explorer: 61% Firefox: 30% Safari:3% Opera: 2%

  34. Mik · 3 years ago

    I agree with those who say it’s mostly the corporate users who represent the majority of non-changers. Employees more often than not have to use IE out of company policy, and they have no authorisation to install whichever browser they liked.

    A single feature like tabbed browsing should be enough to cause a landslide browser switch if it was solely up to the users’ decision.

  35. Adam McClure · 3 years ago

    “Wangs” and “cooters”, that is hilarious. Thanks for making my day. Love your theory on the switch rate decline. Also right on the money about Safari 3. I love Apple.

  36. Eddie · 3 years ago

    I’m so relieved, I thought it was just me who thought the UI for IE7 was a usability nightmare. I’ve got to say though that I get a lot of crashes with Firefox on XP, often relating to downloads and it fairly regularly wants to download a php script instead of opening a page. Having used the web probably every day since 1994 I’ve got to say I’m a bit disgruntled at the minute, can’t put my finger on it, I think all the Myspace users are making me depressed.

  37. Zsolt · 3 years ago

    Interesting point of view, but it seems like you forgot Opera Mini which currently is the #1 mobile phone browser. It works on every phone with java on it. iPhone will never have that kind of a broad “possible ” customer base, because it’s just to expensive and I’m sure the hype around it we’ll die out pretty soon.

    So the only thing i can say is that while normal people will be out drinking beer iPhone users will be playing with their phones in some dark corner of their home.

  38. Xavez · 3 years ago
    your typical user is incredibly lazy and hates change

    What’s new :p?

  39. Alex Shepherd · 3 years ago

    Great article. I enjoyed reading it.

  40. James · 3 years ago

    Another thing a lot of people tend to forget is that Safari for Windows is mostly composed of WebKit — Apple’s OpenSource rendering engine.

    Most people don’t realize this, but iTunes uses WebKit for rendering the iTunes Music Store. That’s right… The iTunes Music Store has always basically been running the innards of Safari from day one. Safari itself is just the chrome that surrounds WebKit. So, while we all think of Safari running on Windows as a new thing, the truth is that WebKit’s been on Windows for awhile. Now that an OpenSource version of WebKit is available for Windows, people can actually build iTunes Music Store-esque applications using WebKit if they really want to.

    Clearly WebKit for Windows isn’t quite ready for prime-time yet, but I think that’s what Apple is working on during this Beta period. They’re trying to attract more Open Source developers to help squashing bugs before they start pushing WebKit apps to those same developers.

  41. Jeff · 3 years ago

    I think you’re over estimating the technical savvy of many users. Today, I still meet people who don’t know what browser they use, and have never installed a program that did not arrive on a disk. Many simply install the disk that came with there DSL/Cable service and thats the end of the story. What if you do this new browser thing and then your computer breaks … then what? For many, their computer is a spooky and mysterious necessity.

  42. Christian Weyer · 3 years ago

    Perhaps the web designers need to push the user a little in the right direction. My company just made a massive AJAXed project and we decided not to support IE6, since it would take weeks to get such a complex site looking somewhat ok in IE 6 (read: transparency, fixed navigation etc..). We know that this is kind of a brave step, because there are many people out there using IE6, but we think if they get more and more error messages (which say that their browser is 5 years old, which is very old) the might move to IE 7.

  43. James Pederson · 3 years ago

    While upgrading to IE7 is a start, wouldn’t any coherent designer prefer that users get Firefox? We could go over drawbacks to IE all day, so should we advocate for our users to download their updates so that they can use the most recent version of their inferior browser? I hope not…

    The problem is that no matter what we do, people will go to a site, and if it breaks in IE7, they will just go back to the SERPs and choose a different result. Our job will never get easier, because Microsoft will never implement what may seem standard to any other browser development team. It’s pretty depressing. Just thought I’d cheer everyone up!

  44. murali · 3 years ago

    i wish to switch back to ie 6 after finding certain problems with ie 7 any solution

  45. semper-fi · 3 years ago

    I also like the theory very much. And for me it really makes sense. If I remember classes about motivation theorie correct. There are really only two types of basic motivation. Either leave something behind (e.g. popup) or get something (e.g. tabs). I don’t really see currently any new trends which should encourage the move away or to. Okay layer-ads are also extremly anoying ;)