It’s been a satisfying couple of months for the Arena product team. We went live with the Summer ’11 release of our core application. We launched several new applications including Arena PartSaver, Arena PDXViewer and Arena Drop Box. And finally, we stopped supporting version 6 of Internet Explorer (IE6).
If you have friends who work on web software, you’re probably familiar with the frustrations of supporting IE6—and if this is a new topic to you, just run a search for “IE bugs” to see how problematic this particular piece of software has become. With a long history of subpar code and non-compliance with web standards, IE6 has inspired a whole class of “cross-browser” frameworks, designed to hide the many hacks and workarounds that IE6 requires to work with modern web applications.
As we at Arena embark on the next phase of product development, the limitations of IE6 have been top of mind. As we seek to develop fast, light-weight and modern web applications for manufacturers (while continuing to enhance and improve our core application, of course) we must confront a long-standing but still hotly debated topic in the world of SaaS providers—whether to support Internet Explorer at all.
Wasted resources reduce customer value
Supporting Internet Explorer with our new apps might seem like an obvious decision, since IE remains the dominant browser for many manufacturing companies. Well-built software meets requirements, and it’s easy to argue that since our market uses Internet Explorer, support for it is an obvious requirement.
But, as CTO of Arena Solutions, a big part of my job is to make sure we create as much customer value as possible with the available resources—in this capacity, I think of myself as an agent for our customers. Arena provides resources, and I use my best judgment to allocate them. Not only must I ensure the security and availability of our core application, I must also develop, deliver and maintain as many new and useful products and features as I can.
When I think about it this way, I have to question if supporting Internet Explorer with our new apps is the best choice.
IE7, IE8 and IE9 are better than IE6, but they still have a lot of issues. To make matters worse, Microsoft has announced that IE8 is the last version of Internet Explorer they will release on Windows XP, so even as new versions of IE are released, a large portion of users will be stuck using version 8. And since IE8 has many of the same kinds of problems that IE6 had (the common web wisdom is that IE8 is the new IE6) Arena will once again be spending valuable resources to make products that work with a non-compliant and outdated browser.
Or will we?
The case for abandoning Internet Explorer
Today, there are not one, but three very compatible browsers that implement web standards and compete on the basis of meeting those standards—Safari, Chrome and Firefox. All three of these browsers are free, easy to install, easy to write code for and are increasingly raising the bar for performance and standards compliance. Google has even created a free way to give IE itself an alternative “personality” with dramatically better standards compliance in the form of Chrome Frame.
The competition between browsers to support web standards is a Good Thing, because the standards themselves are moving forward at an increasingly rapid clip. Most notably, HTML5 and CSS3 have opened up a whole new world of applications just waiting to be written. And while it is still true today that the majority of our users come to Arena using Internet Explorer, we see more and more willingness to try something new in exchange for improved functionality and performance.
For our new applications, I envision a future in which we don’t have to do more work and accept a degraded user experience just to support the “stock”, non-Chrome-Frame-enhanced configuration of Internet Explorer. Even though it is the most commonly used web browser for our audience, the case for designing outside its confines is growing more compelling by the day.
To put it another way, it is clear to me that Arena can create a great deal of customer value with new applications built around the latest web standards, but it is not clear if the value of supporting IE will outweigh the cost in engineering efficiency and forgone features.
Meeting current needs versus preparing for the future
The growing acceptance of browsers like Firefox and Chrome and the rapid advance of web standards is ushering in a new era of online applications. Are these applications doomed to fail commercially if they don’t work “out of the box” with Internet Explorer?
This is a difficult question for any company to answer, but it is particularly difficult for Arena because manufacturing has historically used IE more than other markets. Until recently, we had to accept the bugs, weak standards compliance and functional limitations IE imposed because so many of our customers relied on it. There’s no question that our core application will continue to support stock IE, but when we create new applications and features, should we look to what we have always done or look to the future?
Our customers are forward-thinking—and so are we—so I tend to believe that companies like Arena should lead rather than follow the market, especially when it allows us to create more value with the resources we have.
It’s always a good idea to stand back and check your assumptions
Support for Internet Explorer has been the subject of many late-night conversations within our product team, but it’s very clear that we’re not the only ones wrestling with this problem. Younger “cloud” companies are making the decision every day to abandon Internet Explorer. The more cutting-edge and willing the customer base is to adopt SaaS solutions and other technologies, the more appealing it is to improve engineering efficiencies by abandoning stock Internet Explorer. Since Arena is the only SaaS organization that serves manufacturing exclusively, we need to consider our audience before making a decision.
So what do you think? Is the manufacturing audience receptive to products that don’t support IE? Should we embrace the most modern, standards-compliant options and deliver new products as quickly and efficiently as possible? Or is it better to continue to support the browser most commonly used by our audience, even if it prevents or substantially delays the launch of applications like the Arena Drop Box and PDXViewer—both of which are built around the HTML5 File API, a standard implemented by Firefox, Safari, and Chrome but not Internet Explorer?
I’d like to hear your thoughts.