Retailer's Tax on IE 7 Users Opens New Front in Browser Wars

When Australian retailer Kogan.com enacted a “tax” on customers using Internet Explorer 7 last week, it may not have been trying to become the poster child for worldwide Web-developer frustration with Microsoft browsers. But the stunt seems to have tapped into a seething undercurrent of animosity for Internet Explorer that could bring new combatants to the ongoing browser wars.

What Is an IE Tax?

Russell Kogan, owner of the Kogan.com site, announced the 6.8% surcharge Wednesday for any goods purchased on Kogan.com by users still surfing with IE 7. Kogan’s admonishment was tongue-in-cheek, but his motivation was based on serious economic considerations.

“The way we’ve been able to keep our prices so low is by using technology to make our business efficient and streamlined. One of the things stopping that is our Web team having to spend a lot of time making our new website look normal on IE7,” Kogan wrote.

Kogan’s post, and the message dialog that pops up for users who arrive at the site using IE 7, make it very clear that all that’s needed to avoid the “tax” is a simple upgrade to a newer version of IE - or another browser altogether. But his call for even lighthearted punitive action is underpinned by a very real issue that seems to be gaining traction within Web development circles: a deep and abiding loathing for any version of Internet Explorer.

Why Developers Won’t Support IE Anymore

This hatred of IE is starting to manifest in wholesale rejection of the browser, as many developers begin to refuse to support IE features on their websites. In most cases, the reason is the time and effort that has to be invested to properly deal with IE’s nonstandard ways of rendering Web pages.

Greek Web developer Lea Verou eloquently described the magnitude of the problem last Fall:

“If we choose to make a website pixel-perfect in Internet Explorer 6 to 8, then we are doing up to 100% more work. No matter how many frameworks, polyfills and other scripts we use to ease our pain, we will always be doing at least 30% more work for those browsers,” Verou wrote. “How many of us actually charge 30-100% extra for this work?”

Verou’s solution to the problem of dealing with IE Web development is to actually tack on a surcharge of her own.

IE 7 Costs Developers Money

“I don’t do much client work these days, but every time I’ve taken on a client project in my career, I’ve always presented options for browser support to my client. They want pixel perfection in IE 7? It will cost them more. They want IE 6 support? It will cost double,” she wrote.

Some Web developers have gone even further. Toronto-based startup 4ormat outright refuses to let any IE user sign in to their site. Co-founder Tyler Rooney outlined the online portfolio service provider’s 2008 decision to block IE this past April, citing Verou’s earlier estimates of the effort needed for IE Web development:

“Within a week it was painfully obvious that for every great idea we came up with we had to create equally terrible hacks to support IE7 or even IE8. Supporting variants of IE can easily increase design work by 30% to 100%, but complex features can easily double (or even triple) development time. It doesn’t take many developer salaries before this ‘IE tax’ can cost you well over $100,000,” Rooney wrote this spring.

Not unexpectedly, Rooney was generally positive about Kogan.com’s IE “tax.”

“I think Kogan’s decision is definitely a novel way to educate their customers about the perils of using an out-of-date Web browser,” Rooney commented in an email today.

“When we decided to not support any version of Internet Explorer back in 2008 it was a simple business decision. Not supporting browsers which our target market weren’t even using enabled us to ship a better product in a shorter period of time,” Rooney added. “Kogan mentioned that he doesn’t expect anyone to pay the tax so I’d suspect that their decision won’t have much of an effect on revenue. Kogan probably also came to the same conclusion that we did about all the other benefits that come with not supporting out-of-date browsers: huge productivity gains, shorter release cycles and happier employees.”

Good News for Chrome and Firefox?

If this sentiment against IE continues to gain traction, Microsoft could be facing a sharper migration away from one of its flagship products to Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.

It’s clear that the browser wars of old are taking a very new turn: Web developers are no longer rolling over and letting a single vendor dictate how websites are put together. Real standards, not just ones for which Microsoft lobbies, seem to be the order of the day.

And if developers aren’t satisfied with a browser, they are now unafraid to fight back.