How Much Is That Browser in the Windows OS?

Internet ExplorerSoftware has a cost, no matter what anyone tells you, no matter even if it ships without a price tag of any kind. Years ago, Microsoft made that momentous decision to give us Internet Explorer for free, but I was thinking today about how truly free it really was — which is to say, it’s not free at all when you think about it.

Just how many hours of productivity have been lost to making Web page code work inside of Internet Explorer? Personally, I know that I’ve spent the equivalent of hundreds of man hours coaxing standards-compliant code to render properly in the I.E. world view, and the companies I’ve worked for have probably logged tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of man hours doing the same. When you add up all the effort similarly expended by designers, studios and corporations of all kinds all over the world and over the past five or ten years, it’s got to be an enormously expensive number; if you were to assign hourly rates to all that time, it might total in the billions of dollars.

Happiness Is Valuable, Too

Even setting aside that admittedly rickety fiscal argument, I’m not aware of any single piece of software that’s made Web designers unhappier than Internet Explorer. Most everyone I know just simply loathes it, and if they don’t, they lament the extra effort they need to expend in ensuring I.E. compatibility, time that could have been spent on positive endeavours.

Many of the hours I’ve spent wrangling with Internet Explorer were squarely unbillable, I admit, but it was my personal time that I was investing in making some side project work competently in I.E. It’s time that I should have been enjoying, not time I should have been spending gnashing my teeth together in frustration. Software cost can be quantified in dollars, but it should also be measured in human impact; its design matters.

And now, I’m going to start looking at how just much Internet Explorer 7 is going to cost me.

  1. Wow. Epiphany city! Nothing is ever free – someone has to bear the brunt of the cost:

    * Microsoft half finished their browser (go on, call IE6 “production ready”; I dare ya!), so they never bore the full development cost;
    * End users get it for “free” with Windows (which they got “free” with their PC), so they didn’t pay for even that small development cost; but
    * Us web developers shell out billions of hours’ worth of work finishing the job and making IE work.

    It’s almost an open-source model – release a buggy bit of code, and get the community to fix it. Except with IE, all we’re doing is shoring it up, and they’re rolling in profits.

    Sorry – I’ve just spent all day hacking a vendor’s ActiveX application via VPC on my Mac. Colour me jaded.

  2. I am not sure if you will agree with me here, but I believe the consensus around 1997-1998 was that IE4 (on the PC at least) was light years ahead of Netscape. I personally found it a joy to use at the time, and I was grateful that MS made a browser with better text displays, clearer (and simpler) UI elements, way way way faster launch and page displays, and lots of other improvements on Netscape’s product.

    Since then, of course, IE has gotten worse and worse as other browsers have gotten better and better. But I don’t think it’s fair or even accurate to say that IE was always bad.

    Also, I doubt that MS made any profit from our lost hours of productivity. There’s a difference between intended costs and unintended costs.

  3. I feel your pain too. I use to have a great CSS theme for my blog which worked perfectly on Firefox and Safari, but it just wouldn’t work right on IE. After much fiddling, I gave up on that theme. Changed to a simpler theme for the sake of those using IE.

  4. Netscape 4 has done more to make my life miserable than IE anything. The websites I spend my days working on were designed to avoid header tags, for example, because NN4 had irreducible margins around header tags, which didn’t work with the design, so rather than use h1, we have div and spans cluttered with class=”H1″ and such. Yes, to this day.

    IE makes my life miserable for any new designs I create, but for the sites I spend my days maintaining, NN4 has left scars the pain of which I feel every single day.

  5. I’m neither a Mac user nor a Windows user, but it’s worth noting that there is an idiosyncratic and proprietary browser lurking in OS X that, while currently less vexating to support, is nonetheless costly to support, and just a little bit ominous.

  6. Joseph, what brower would that be? The only browser I know of that comes with OS X is Safari, which is hardly proprietary (it’s rendering engine is open source) nor does it lurk (it’s the default browser).

  7. While web development is not my primary job and I don’t have to deal with all of IE’s idiosyncrasies, I see this a little differently…

    When Internet Explorer began its path it was the friendlier browser to code for. I’ll admit that MS didn’t observe standards as well as it could have, but Netscape had proprietary tags and features, as well. As time went on there were things that IE did better and worse than competing browsers, but it wasn’t in a position to simply bail out. And until even as recently as mid-way through last year, it seemed there were just as many idiosyncrasies in Firefox as IE. Not as many documented security holes, but just as many annoyances for the projects that I at least encountered in my limited web development.

    I’m a supporter of Firefox and use it nearly exlusively at present. I used Netscape for a long time before switching to IE5. But I have to say that the greatest challenge I’ve encountered is the fact that browsers are different than each another, an inherent challenge in any situation where there’s competition & compatibility at question.

    I think it’s unfair to point the finger at one browser and say it’s their fault. Just because it’s the “one installed from the factory” doesn’t mean that it’s going to be perfect. I think that, in the end, the competition may have bothered a lot of developers but it led to a better experience for the end-user by people competing to both provide better browser functionalities and more powerful user interface features. The challenge with IE compatibility seems to me the challenge of all technology work–keeping up with it all and working through the quirks is never as easy as we’d like it to be.

  8. That’s a reasonable argument, but I think I see it a little differently, still. Internet Explorer isn’t just another browser; it was expressly integrated into the operating system, and as a result, it became an inextricable part of the operating system.

    If Microsoft had take an approach that was more fair to its competition — and which would have been much better for Microsoft itself in the long run — it would have built IE as a regular, standalone app.

    Instead, the tact they took made it ubiquitous, which compounds its problems. It was also prematurely wedded to the operating system; as we’ve seen over the past four years, its status as an integral part of the Windows operating system has caused innumerable security problems (in fact, one can very reasonably look at this as another huge cost that IE’s audience bears: how many man hours have been lost to IE-based security vulnerabilities?).

    Had Microsoft shipped IE in such a way that it could easily be removed or replaced, it would be a completely different story today. I don’t think that IE would have nearly its market share, for one. And I also think that, by choosing to compete on a level playing field with Netscape, the IE product would have been significantly higher in quality. And certaintly, it wouldn’t have been effectively mothballed as it was after Netscape essentially gave up the market. It took the unexpected surge of Firefox to get Microsoft to decide to revisit IE and actually decide to ship a new version.

    Basically, I should have been more explicit in my complaint: IE is terrible, and the strategy behind IE is a huge cause of that awfulness. And it’s costing all of us time and satisfaction, still.

  9. Aye, Safari, which is undeniably a proprietary browser. That (the regrettable KHTML-forked) Webkit is open source doesn’t change that. I’ll let you have “lurk” though!

  10. Jared said: “I think it’s unfair to point the finger at one browser and say it’s their fault.”

    No it isn’t. I’m not a professional web designer, I just make sites/pages for myself, family and friends. Every single time I have made a site (hand coded in BBEdit, html and css that validates) my work has looked consistent and as intended in ALL* web browsers, except MSIE6.

    *By ALL I mean Safari, Camino, FireFox on all 3 major platforms, Opera, Epiphany, Konqueror, Galeon.

  11. why does microsoft resist building a standard compliant browser so much? what’s the harm to them? I haven’t ever understood a clear answer to those questions.

  12. NN4 remains the only browser that is so bad that I refuse to support it. It’s not just that it’s broken, but it LIES about being broken. I hate that browser with a passion.

    IE is frustrating but only to the extent that I have to put in /*stupid IE*/ comments all over my code.

    Sean said:

  13. Messed up and hit post.

    Sean said: “why does microsoft resist building a standard compliant browser so much?”

    IE6 is reasonably standards compliant. If you go back to 1999, it had the best standards support of any browser. Sure the box model is screwy and the floats are buggy, but if you squint at the code and don’t use stuff that is known bad, it looks like standards code.

    As to why they haven’t done a release since 99, the consensus is that they considered themselves to have won the market and therefore had no need to continue investing in IE. IE7 is supposed to be fairly good (haven’t tried it, but those are the reports) but it will, of course, require re-learning all the IE tricks.

  14. as someone who has used ie7, it is an improvement over ie6, but I still prefer firefox (or flock based on firefox) over ie.

    as for ie making it a part of windows and not a standalone app, ponder at the fact that ie7 is no longer microsoft internet explorer 7, but Windows Internet Explorer 7.
    The fact remains, msoft is only doing what it’s competitor apple is doing, i.e. Safari being integrated with macosx.

  15. I couldn’t agree more! I’m skeptical of IE 7 but it does actually look like they are trying to become more standards compliant, hurray!!

    If IE 7 looks anything like the current beta that’s out the UI is going to look worse than the current IE 6 UI. I could care less what it looks because I will only be opening it and running it to “try” and make my sites render ok in the browser.

    There is a list of CSS bugs that they have fixed in IE 7 beta on the IEBlog that you might be interested in.

  16. When it comes to big boyz, they never play fair anyways, so let’s not argue on that.

    As much pain that IE fixes and hacks gets us, there were days we made pages to work on IE only, remember the Active-X support that we could use to build intranets, and oh man, RDS? anyone remembers RDS on IE? These were days were web applications actualy started meaning something on the intranets. With Netscape you think such stuff could’ve happened? No way, thos ugly applets, oh man don’t remind me.

  17. Khoi- I hear your argument and I can no longer recommend IE to my friends and clients. I just think that it’s hard to know with such confidence that the story would’ve been different if IE weren’t integrated, or if the playing field were larger. Without integration, would Windows users have the same caliber of third-party software? In principle, Active X was a great idea. If other browsers dominated, would we then just have different security issues to contend with?

    As to Microsoft’s IE strategy, I can’t say that I agree wholly with Dvorak, but his piece summarizes Microsoft’s flawed approach here:,1895,1952999,00.asp

    I think I’m holding my ground as someone who just comes at this from a very PC-oriented view. After I spent hours and hours fixing my sites for IE & Firefox, it was Safari that didn’t work for me. Perhaps if I spent more time working within the standards than starting from open source examples then I would’ve found IE to be the culprit for more lost time.

    It seems to me that the greatest problem with Microsoft is their complacency. Their operating system, office suite, and browser were dominant for so long and, unlike Adobe or Mac who continued to refine and improve their products, they let the competitors get the upper hand. Of course, once better competitors were in sight we all hate Microsoft for being behind the times while still having the largest user base. Hopefully IE7 will be a strong product where they wake up a little.

  18. The issue, for me at least, isn’t how various browsers behaved in the past, but how they behave now, both for designers and for users (how they behaved in the past is irrelevant as the number of users who rely on old browsers is vastly dwindling — and people who have old browsers should upgrade; they’re free after all). The problem with Microsoft having a proprietary browser that is not standards compliant, and that produces a billion headaches for designers and users, is the ubiquity of that browser and its OS. Microsoft has the most widely used OS in the world, and the most widely used browser — and yet they refuse to make something that is truly standards compliant. That’s just bizarre, and downright stupid. It would be much less of an issue if IE wasn’t so prevalent, but it is. And that’s what makes me hate Microsoft so much (despite the fact that I am typing this on a PC — but I don’t have a choice because my employer won’t buy Macs); they rule the PC world and yet they won’t do what’s right. In my view, they deserve it when people switch to Firefox.

  19. MS has always considered “features” in its IE product over “compliance”

    Making the browser an intergral part of the OS is a “feature” in MS’s mind.

    That being said, yes Safari acts the same way and Apple is equally guilty of tying the rendering engine of it browser to its OS.

    Coding for IE6 isnt that bad if you simply write expressions for certain things. I support numerous CSS 2 features in IE6 such as first and last child, min and max width etc etc without problems.

    IE6 can be a pain but if you accept that it will always be a reality and simply write well structured documents (and yes unfort a hack here and there..but not many) its actually not that bad.

    no worse than earlier versions of safari in someways..

  20. stabani, i don’t know of a single way in which safari is integrated with mac OS X. it comes with the OS and the software update program updates it, but, well, that’s bundling. safari is still completely separate from the finder, for example. you can’t say that about windows explorer and windows internet explorer. in fact one can seamlessly transform into the other on the fly. also, you can remove safari from the system with absolutely no ill effects. but internet explorer under windows can only be disabled. remove it, and things will start to break and go wrong. it’s definitely fair to say that apple are not using their monopoly position (sole provider of mac hardware and OS) to force their browser onto their customers. microsoft probably aren’t doing that either, but they do strongly suggest you use their browser, even though it’s laughably shoddy and much better alternatives exist nowadays. just so they can boost MSN usage a little and also out of silly stubbornness. (open source is evil!) you don’t see apple harming their customers for such stupid reasons.

  21. Innovative angle. As a web developer who **tries** to adhere to web standards, making my sites work with IE6 is a nightmare. The least Microsoft could do is keep an easy to find, comprehensive list of all of the standards that IE disregards, so we designers could at least make our sites work with IE without doublilng our development time.

    The tide is slowly turning, but for MS to ever really, truly **GET IT**, it would require web developers to start shunning IE in large numbers and leaving their sites to display broken in IE while they work in Firefox, Safari and other compliant browsers. Since a large contingent of web developers don’t have any concern for web standards, I doubt this will ever happen.

    Still, something need to happen to put pressure on MS to make IE fully web standards compliant. If Apple and Opera can do it with much smaller companies, less funding and smaller teams, there is no reason (apart from arrogance and wanting to intentionally flout the web standards community) for MS not to do it.

  22. Thank you Mozilla, thank you Web Standards Project, thank you Opera, thank you Apple. Thanks to your hard work in making browsers better, Microsoft has had to wake up and at least start to pay lip service to web standards. Maybe in a year or two they will catch up.

    In the mean time, I can at least see the light at the end of the tunnel as I pull the extra hours to make my clients’ sites work right (or close enough to it) in Microsoft’s ever-lovin’ web browser.

  23. Joseph, just to let you know: Safari was the first browser that interpreted (X)HTML & CSS2 correctly. So if you’re saying that Safari is costly to support, you should quit your job, start learning how to make real websites and then come back to this thread again.

  24. It is unfair to point fingers at web developers. As a web developer you design for your clients. Your clients most likely will use IE.

    I could develop for Mozilla type browsers solely. It would make life easy. But as far as my customers are concerned, that is actually as stupid (or worse) as only developing for IE.

    Meaning: they wouldn’t be my customers for very long. And I’d have to look at other ways to provide for my family.

    That has been a reality since 1996. You develop for the browsers that are used. Developers aren’t in a position to play games with their customers.

    BTW, just as an aside: I find Opera to be a pain as well. They don’t make my blood boil like IE can. They are a loveable bunch. But still, IE is not the only problem out there.

  25. The issue isn’t that IE is bad (which it is), but that free does not mean that there aren’t any costs.
    As an example, we had a company here (the Netherlands) that send email ads, which are received for free. Legitimate business, but still, many found it anoying. My provider then found a way to recognize email from this business and filtered the emails out. Advertiser mad and went to court.
    The outcome was that the provider was allowed to filter the emails simply because the cost of distributing them was carried by the provider and the customers (mostly dial-in at that time).
    MS is doing the same with IE. IE is distributed for free, but any further costs are not paid for by MS: vulnerabilities and webdesign that doesn’t work cross-platform.
    My personal opinion is that the web is based on open standards. If an OS wants to embrace the web it should offer it’s users a browser that is compliant with these open standards. Safari may have bugs, but the intention is to offer the most compliant and fastest browser. IE seems to be developed to a point that MS can build their own services. Anyone getting their own services implemented, well, that nice for you, but any problem you are running into gives MS an advantage if they want to offer something similar.

  26. @stabini, who said “The fact remains, msoft is only doing what it’s competitor apple is doing, i.e. Safari being integrated with macosx.”

    There are two things wrong with this statement. First, IE outdates any browser that Apple ever built by several years. So the argument gives the wrong impression.

    Second, “integrated” is a matter of semantics. On Windows many parts of the OS depend on code that belongs to IE: much of the regular Explorer, Active Desktop, several filters and renderers. When the EU demanded a version of Windows without IE, it resulted in a Windows version that wasn’t functional!

    On MacOSX, integrated means that applications may depend on a framework that is installed with the OS. E.g. Safari and Mail depend on a framework named Web Kit. Another is QuickTime Kit.
    However, given the architecture of the OS, can an app have it’s own private copy of that same framework, i.e. because the app requires a newer version that fixes a bug or adds features. The user will never know that this is the case and the newer, private, framework won’t break other apps that also depend on this framework but were never tested with the newer version.
    Further, adding frameworks isn’t restricted to Apple. E.g. a well known framework, the one that StuffIt uses but that is opened so other apps might offer stuff/unstuff as a feature also. Web Kit is not more integrated with the OS then the StuffIt engine. Same for the QuickTime Kit.
    Removing the Web Kit will cause Safari and Mail to stop working, but you can still use the OS, the Finder, FireFox, Thunderbird, Office and any other app. Dependencies only go so far. (There are frameworks that every application depends on, and yes, removing one of those would make the Mac unusable)
    However, MacOSX also maintains some information about capabilities of frameworks. An app, written against a newer version of a framework, might find itself installed onto a computer that doesn’t have this newer version. In that case should the app adapt its working to the capabilities at hand instead of sending a user on a wild goosechase to find updates.
    A developer, being registered with the Apple Developer Connection program, can ask for time in Apple’s compatibility lab, which means that a developer can use a whole lot of differently installed Macs to test his application.

    This “integration” is part of the Macintosh ease of use and ease of maintainance and is also a huge part of the Macintosh lower level of vulnerability against malware.

    Again, “integrated” is a matter of semantics. I hope that the difference is a bit more clear now.

  27. Thanks Eddy, to sum up – you can have any default browser on OSX and you can delete Safari and it still works.

    I remember in windows that if you change the default browser, it’s used 90% of the time, but then certain apps like MSN Messenger still use Internet Explrorer anyway- infuriating!

    Furthermore, 99% of HTML/CSS if it’s standards compliant just works on Safari (I view it as a slightly advanced version of Firefox in terms of rendering). How much standards compliant stuff works in IE6 off the bat (that works in other major new browsers)?

  28. “I’m not aware of any single piece of software that’s made Web designers unhappier than Internet Explorer”


  29. FWIW, I recently purchased a very useful book, “CSS Hacks & Filters,” by Joseph W. Lowery (Wiley). It is a comprehensive collection of all the discrepancies between browsers, especially versions of IE, and offers hacks and other workarounds to “fix” the various problems. I’m finding it invaluable. Most of the individual problems and solutions can be found on the net, but this collects them all in one place.

  30. You damn kids. (-: As frustrating as Internet Explorer has become to support, it’s nothing compared to the pain and misery that Netscape 4 brought web developers, particularly its stagnation as IE continued to improve it’s standards support in versions 5 and 6.

    For all its warts, Internet Explorer still supports Cascading Style Sheets. Netscape 4, despite appearances, “>never supported CSS. You had a tiny subset of style rules, but were stuck with tables embedded in tables embedded in tables for anything but the most basic of layouts, not to mention all the non-validating tricks and hacks.

    Don’t get me wrong; I spend a good portion of my day grumbling about Internet Explorer and the huge issues created the monopolistic tactics of the original IE program managers, but all that’s a piece of cake compared to the “bad old days” where the two major browsers required a completely different approach to development.

  31. “E6 is reasonably standards compliant. If you go back to 1999, it had the best standards support of any browser.”

    Actually, IE6 didn’t come out until 2001, and even then, it didn’t have the best standards support of any browser. At the time, that distinction belonged to its cousin, IE5 for Mac, which was released in 2000.

  32. I refuse to code for IE. I’ve moved to purely flash-based sites now that most people have broadband, with a very toned down light version for narrowbanders.

    I used to code strictly standards-based sites, then spend half the time I took making the page fixing errors so IE would play nicely, generally making the site not look the way I intended it.

    Internet Explorer only holds back web development. Until Microsoft gets its act together, we won’t ever see any evolutionary changes to page design.

  33. Dan, I agree. I have started making Flash-only sites lately. Sure, it’s not good for mobile devices, but it always looks like you want it to.

    This gripe about IE has been going on for years, and I sure hope it ends with a standards-compliant IE7, although, I’m not crossing my fingers. I’d like to start charging companies for the extra time I put in IE, and maybe I’ll be able to justify that if IE7 is still broken.

    After all, Firefox is gaining a small amount of traction, so there are ‘other people’ to think about.

    Thanks for the positive thinking!

  34. ALready I see that IE7 does not work with so many sites out there. I’m off the mind that we should all drop support for this browser – it will be a pain for many regular users but something has to change.

  35. YES. Microsoft claiming IE7 was free-with-the-purchase-of-a-$200-OS-that-does-nothing-but-run-IE was one of the slimiest things they ever did to kill Netscape.

    If it was Free, I’d have a Linux and BSD and Solaris and HPUX version right now; and not have to worry as much about cross-browser compatability. But I don’t. The only well-maintained version is only “free” when you overpay $190 for an OS — or in other words, they’re charging almost $300 for that browser since the rest of the OS has negative value.

  36. If we’re going to talk about “worst browser ever”, then the prize does go to Internet Explorer… but specifically, IE5 for Mac.

  37. Microsoft have gone on record before stating that Big business relies on the way previous version of IE work and any new IE versions must not stop these working.
    Hence quirks mode etc.

  38. It’s amazing to see people saying “but IE is better than Netscape 4” =8|

    IE7 is NOT standards compliant. It fixes seven IE CSS bugs and adds selectors. Things that have been around since 1999 and run well in any other browser.

    Other than that, IE7 is just IE6 in a new package. It is still eight years behind web standards for most things, especially the DOM.

    Designing for IE is a blunder. If you design for web standards then you are reasonably sure your page will work in all browsers. If you design for IE then you can be reasonably sure it won’t work in all browsers and you will have to hack the code for each individual one.

    IE is a cancer on the web, as Paul Thurott said, and must be eradicated.

  39. I was walking down the hall of a middle school a few days ago and passed a computer class with the door open. The teacher was telling her kids, “Now, click on the Internet Explorer icon and open Internet Explorer.” I almost ran in there and yelled at her, “What the @[*6& are you teaching these kids?!!!” That still gives me the creeps thinking about it. It’s like teaching a class of preschoolers and saying, “Now class, open your bottles of cyanide pills.”

  40. I think you misunderstood me. I meant to imply that Microsoft is bundling it’s browser just like Apple is, I meant to talk about the next version of Windows, which would be Windows Vista. I have, on another note, in Windows XP, safely removed IE6, albiet it was crazy hard, then again, doing any sort of modification to windows seems like a chore.

    Again, I’m not a mac user, only tinkered with them. I’m a PC user, though recently left Windows for some flavours of Linux.

  41. Yeah, I.E. is a pain to developers but (and maybe I scanned past someone mentioning this) another hidden cost of I.E. lies in repairs to PCs infected with malware as a result of I.E. security flaws. Jesus crap I’ve so much time and energy defunking computers that had “crucial” data and thus couldn’t be wiped and rebuilt. If I hadn’t been on salary for these endeavors, the bill would have been astronomical. Additionally, figure in the cost of helper applications such as…I don’t know the names of leading anti-malware software (which merely offer a partial solution), I use free ones…and the cost grows even more.

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