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IPv6 and the Browser Wars

Published on 11 Feb 2014

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Sometime around the turn of the century, Internet Explorer became the dominant browser. Riding on a 90% market share for Windows, the incumbent – Netscape Navigator – did not stand a chance. However, with it came a dark age for web developers.

As the World Wide Web Consortium continued to define new specifications for a better web, Internet Explorer sat stagnant. Content with its monopoly over web browsers, Microsoft did little, releasing only one major update up until 2006. Problems like poor style sheet support made it difficult for web developers. It was a time when a lot of hacks and workarounds had to be developed on the content side, when they should have been implemented on the browser.

That all changed when Netscape open-sourced its browser code, which resulted in Phoenix — the original name for what we now call Firefox. It brought better CSS2 support, better adhered to W3C specs, and also introduced tabbed browsing. Firefox, along with Google Chrome a few years later, started chipping away at Internet Explorer’s lead. IE7, followed by IE8, could not stop this trend as it became increasingly clear to the masses that there were better browsers out there.

One problem remains — a good majority of Internet users still use IE. The browser as it is works for the most part, so the masses accepted it as-is. It also still ships with every PC. Even though there is a better browser to develop on, web developers have to consider the lowest common denominator and support IE6. On that note, anything accessible over IPv6 should be accessible over IPv4. The world is still on IPv4; a business decision for IPv6-only is incredibly difficult to justify.

So here we are today, looking at how we can convince everyone to get on the IPv6 train. Without content, there’s no real incentive. The pressure is really on the operators, because most consumers don’t care if it’s v4, v6, or even v5 — as long as it works. Looking at the browser wars, it took awhile to get everyone off the IE6 train. It didn’t happen overnight. Some sites started announcing end-of-life support for IE6 and there were campaigns to convince webmasters to urge their IE6 visitors to update or switch to a better browser. A few years ago, it was considered safe to leave IE6 support out of the requirements list, to the joy of many web developers.

Will we see a similar situation where IPv4 is gradually phased out? It seems likely, but IPv4 is the backbone of all Internet communications. It’s difficult to predict when and how its successor — IPv6 — will take the throne. But I think it’s safe to say that it will take a concerted effort involving more than just network operators. Content providers not only need to prepare their servers for IPv6, but should also look at some of the features it promises. There may be a “killer app” the masses want somewhere that will propel IPv6 adoption. It may be a long time before IPv6 dominates, but the transition process can take years to complete, so it would be wise to start preparations sooner rather than later.