Internet Explorer (IE) is notorious for its idiosyncratic approach to web standards and web design. Web designers’ hair turns prematurely grey, if it isn’t pulled out first, because of IE’s refusal to place boxes and text in the same place as the more reliable Chrome and Firefox browsers. If only IE could be consigned to the browser graveyard, our lives would be so much easier, not to mention that websites would be faster and cheaper to build and maintain.

Is this still true today? That depends on the prevalence of IE (and its various incarnations), and how the latest versions have progressed since the days of the notorious IE6.

Finding definitive browser usage statistics is a thankless task. Nevertheless, the long term trend is clear. According to w3schools.com, over 10 years, Internet Explorer usage has dropped from 76.2% (November 2004) to 9.8% (November 2014).

Back in November 2004, Google’s Chrome browser didn’t exist. Today, this fast, slick and standards-compliant browser has a 60.1% share of the browser market.

Different figures, but a similar trend, is evident from an alternative source of browser stats – StatCounter. StatCounter, which can filter data to show browser use in the UK, suggests Chrome (all versions combined) has a 37.1% share of browser use in the UK, with IE11 (the top performing version of IE) lagging far behind at 9.92%.

This latter figure puts IE below iPhones, an amazing turnaround from IE’s position of utter dominance ten years ago. It’s due in no small part to IE’s longstanding technical inferiority to the competition, and to the sluggish sales of new Windows machines thanks to the poorly-received Windows 8. Giants Sony and Samsung have exited the European laptop market due in part to the disastrous take-up of the latest version of Windows.

StatCounter browser stats, showing Chrome streets ahead of the competition (November 2014)

StatCounter browser stats, showing Chrome streets ahead of the competition (November 2014)

The idea that much-maligned IE is the leading browser is dead, and has been for years.

However, a market share of around 10% is not to be sniffed at, and too high to ignore IE all together. In the UK, 55 million people (90% of the population) use the Internet. That’s 5.5 million IE users. Unless you’re designing websites for the geeky elite (who will more likely be on Chrome or Firefox), that’s too many potential customers to ignore.

IE’s upward trend

What’s more, IE is on an upward trend, albeit a slow one. With Microsoft’s vision to provide one OS (and by extension, IE) across multiple platforms, the stunning success of the Surface Pro 3 and other Windows devices is helping to offset poor laptop and PC sales.

Microsoft’s share of the tablet market may be at a paltry 1.9% (compared to 27.% for Apple), but it is rising fast. Users of the Surface Pro 3 and alternative Windows devices are not forced to use IE (it’s possible to install Chrome, Firefox, etc), but as more Windows devices are sold, the more users are returning to IE, which is installed by default and is optimised for use on these Microsoft tablets.

We also know that Windows 10 is on the horizon, due for release in 2015 (bizarrely, Windows 9 is being skipped). Windows 10 promises to right many of the wrongs of Windows 8 and is likely to see an up-turn in the fortune of the Windows-based PC and laptop market, and therefore a rise in IE use.

If w3school.com stats are taken as gospel, from a low of 8.5% market share in July 2014, IE has risen over one percentage point to 9.8% in just four months. For IE, things seem to be on the up.

Statistics show that  PC and laptop-based browsers still rule the roost, but tablet and mobile-based browsers are on the up.

Statistics show that PC and laptop-based browsers still rule the roost, but tablet and mobile-based browsers are on the up.

So, IE isn’t dead, but all of today’s browsers are equally compliant so the design process is the same… yes?

Sadly, no. Even IE 11, Microsoft’s most advanced browser, lags behind the major competition.

According to HTML5Test, out of a possible 555 points, Chrome 39 scores 512, Firefox 34 scores 475 and IE11 scores a mere 376 (November 2014).

For web designers pushing the boundaries of the latest HTML5 and CSS3 standards, this means – as usual – keeping a ‘closer eye’ on IE than the alternatives. Some will prefer to test in IE11 first, on the assumption that if it works in IE it will work in Chrome and Firefox (though this is not necessarily true).

What about older versions of IE… are they dead?

An idiosyncrasy of IE is that many of its users are not on the latest version – contrast with Chrome and Firefox, where the vast majority of usage is on one of the very latest releases. Much like old versions of Windows, IE users are unlikely to move on more than once every few years, or when they buy a new Windows device.

For example, there are more people using IE8 than IE10, most likely attributed to the continued popularity of Windows XP and Windows 7.

Thankfully, according to both global w3schools.com stats and UK-filtered StatCounter stats, IE11 (the latest and best) is by far the most-used version of IE, at 4.7% and 9.92% of the browser market respectively.

How about older versions of IE? Are they dead? Even if they aren’t dead, do the headaches they cause outweigh the benefits of ensuring compliance? Here’s what I think…

IE version Global share
(w3schools.com)
UK share
(StatCounter)
HTML5 support Conclusion
IE11 4.7% 9.92% 376 The most popular IE and too popular to be ignored.
IE10 1.4% 1.85% 335 Low usage, but a decent browser = shouldn’t cause many more headaches than IE11
IE9 1.8% 2.51% 128 Stronger usage than IE10, but a headache. With declining usage, I would be tempted to ignore if possible. Borderline / A judgement call.
IE8 1.6% 1.89% 43 A headache to use and falling usage. I say… dead!
IE7 0.3% Negligible 27 Long dead.
IE6 0.0% Negligible 26 Worst browser ever? Thankfully, long dead.

IE11 use is rising. Use of older IE versions is dropping (if slowly). Windows 10 isn’t too far away, and Windows tablets are increasingly popular, pointing to increased usage of IE11.

Unless there is a commercial imperative – for example, because analysis of your own web stats shows a particularly high use of old IE versions, or your clients demand it (eugh…) – I would support only IE11 and IE10, ignoring the rest.

Hurrah!