The nearly decade old browser Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 is still the third most popular browser in the world, according to research firm Net Applications. Why does this ancient monstrosity persist? Esther Schindler, writing for IT Expert Voice, decided to find out. Some of the reasons are to be expected – the need to support legacy applications, ignorance, etc. But Schindler turned up one particularly surprising reason.

The not-so-surprising reasons IT staff gave Schindler for not upgrading IE were:

  • They Don’t Upgrade Anything
  • One Critical IE6-Only Third Party Application Holds Them Back
  • Cost Of Updating In-House Applications is Too Great

Some companies simply don’t make upgrading hardware and software a priority, either out of ignorance, due to fear of breaking something, or financial reasons. Others find updating custom in-house applications for IE8 compatibility too expensive to justify. Gartner estimates that up to 40% of in-house applications won’t work properly with IE8.

Others rely on out-dated third-party applications. Some vendors still don’t support newer IE browsers, others require expensive upgrades. Cognos, Siebel and Peoplesoft are particularly problematic applications, according to a blog post by Gartner analyst Neil MacDonald.

But here’s the surprising reason: IE6 as user control.

Some managers have realized that IE6 works fine for required enterprise applications, but makes browsing newer social media sites an unpleasant experience. This may seem like a clever way to restrict users’ Internet behavior on the cheap, but the security risks are obscene. Companies trying to block what sites people view at work should invest in proper web filtering technology.

Meanwhile, the options for enterprises that need to support legacy applications – third-party or in-house – have few options. Microsoft encourages customers to use terminal services or virtualization – but both options get expensive quick. Microsoft doesn’t support virtualizing just IE6 – users must virtualize both the operating system and the browser. Why? MacDonald writes:

Pretty likely because Microsoft has argued for years with various governments around the world that IE was not a separate application and was instead an inseparable part of the OS. Virtualizing it as an application would run counter to this argument.

That leaves organizations having to either pay for enough Terminal Services licenses to go around, or buying Windows XP licences for virtualization.

Third party vendors like VMWare offer solutions for virtualizing just IE6, but don’t offer out of the box solutions for fear of being sued by Microsoft. Gartner is calling on Microsoft to permit virtualization of the browser alone, but it sounds like Internet Explorer 6 will be with us for quite sometime to come.

(Hat tip to Mary-Jo Foley for the source material for this story)