Dealing with IE

Laura asked a question on Twitter the other day about dealing with older versions of Internet Explorer when you’ve got your layout styles nested within media queries (that older versions of IE don’t understand):

It’s a fair question. It also raises another question: how do you define “dealing with” Internet Explorer 8 or 7?

You could justifiably argue that IE7 users should upgrade their damn browser. But that same argument doesn’t really hold for IE8 if the user is on Windows XP: IE8 is as high as they can go. Asking users to upgrade their browser is one thing. Asking them to upgrade their operating system feels different.

But this is the web and websites do not need to look the same in every browser. Is it acceptable to simply give Internet Explorer 8 the same baseline experience that any other old out-of-date browser would get? In other words, is it even a problem that older versions of Internet Explorer won’t parse media queries? If you’re building in a mobile-first way, they’ll get linearised content with baseline styles applied.

That’s the approach that Alex advocates in the Q&A after his excellent closing keynote at Fronteers. That’s what I’m doing here on adactio.com. Users of IE8 get the linearised layout and that’s just fine. One of the advantages of this approach is that you are then freed up to use all sorts of fancy CSS within your media query blocks without having to worry about older versions of IE crapping themselves.

On other sites, like Huffduffer, I make an assumption (always a dangerous thing to do) that IE7 and IE8 users are using a desktop or laptop computer and so they could get some layout styles. I outlined that technique in a post about Windows mobile media queries. Using that technique, I end up splitting my CSS into two files:

<link rel="stylesheet" href="/css/global.css" media="all">
<link rel="stylesheet" href="/css/layout.css" media="all and (min-width: 30em)">
<!--[if (lt IE 9) & (!IEMobile)]>
<link rel="stylesheet" href="/css/layout.css" media="all">
<![endif]-->

The downside to this technique is that now there are two HTTP requests for the CSS …even for users of modern browsers. The alternative is to maintain one stylesheet for modern browsers and a separate stylesheet for older versions of Internet Explorer. That sounds like a maintenance nightmare.

Pre-processors to the rescue. Using Sass or LESS you can write your CSS in separate files (e.g. one file for basic styles and another for layout styles) and then use the preprocessor to combine those files in two different ways: one with media queries (for modern browsers) and another without media queries (for older versions of Internet Explorer). Or, if you don’t want to have your media query styles all grouped together, you can use Jake’s excellent method.

When I relaunched The Session last month, I initially just gave Internet Explorer 8 and lower the linearised content—the same layout that small-screen browsers would get. For example, the navigation is situated at the bottom of each page and you get to it by clicking an internal link at the top of each page. It all worked fine and nobody complained.

But I thought that it was a bit of a shame that users of IE8 and IE7 weren’t getting the same navigation that users of other desktop browsers were getting. So I decided to use a preprocesser (Sass in this case) to spit out an extra stylesheet for IE8 and IE7.

So let’s say I’ve got .scss files like this:

  • base.scss
  • medium.scss
  • wide.scss

Then in my standard .scss file that’s going to generate the CSS for all browsers (called global.css), I can write:

@import "base.scss";
@media all and (min-width: 30em) {
 @import "medium";
}
@media all and (min-width: 50em) {
 @import "wide";
}

But I can also generate a stylesheet for IE8 and IE7 (called legacy.css) that calls in those layout styles without the media query blocks:

@import "medium";
@import "wide";

IE8 and IE7 will be downloading some styles twice (all the styles within media queries) but in this particular case, that doesn’t amount to too much. Oh, and you’ll notice that I’m not even going to try to let IE6 parse those styles: it would do more harm than good.

<link rel="stylesheet" href="/css/global.css">
<!--[if (lt IE 9) & (!IEMobile) & (gt IE 6)]>
<link rel="stylesheet" href="/css/legacy.css">
<![endif]-->

So I did that (although I don’t really have .scss files named “medium” or “wide”—they’re actually given names like “navigation” or “columns” that more accurately describe what they do). I thought I was doing a good deed for any users of The Session who were still using Internet Explorer 8.

But then I read this. It turned out that someone was not only using IE8 on Windows XP, but they had their desktop’s resolution set to 800x600. That’s an entirely reasonable thing to do if your eyesight isn’t great. And, like I said, I can’t really ask him to upgrade his browser because that would mean upgrading the whole operating system.

Now there’s a temptation here to dismiss this particular combination of old browser + old OS + narrow resolution as an edge case. It’s probably just one person. But that one person is a prolific contributor to the site. This situation nicely highlights the problem of playing the numbers game: as a percentage, this demographic is tiny. But this isn’t a number. It’s a person. That person matters.

The root of the problem lay in my assumption that IE8 or IE7 users would be using desktop or laptop computers with a screen size of at least 1024 pixels. Serves me right for making assumptions.

So what could I do? I could remove the conditional comments and the IE-specific stylesheet and go back to just serving the linearised content. Or I could serve up just the medium-width styles to IE8 and IE7.

That’s what I ended up doing but I also introduced a little bit of JavaScript in the conditional comments to serve up the widescreen styles if the browser width is above a certain size:

<link rel="stylesheet" href="/css/global.css">
<!--[if (lt IE 9) & (!IEMobile) & (gt IE 6)]>
<link rel="stylesheet" href="/css/medium.css">
<script>
if (document.documentElement.clientWidth > 800) {
 document.write('<link rel="stylesheet" href="/css/wide.css">');
}
</script>
<![endif]-->

It works …I guess. It’s not optimal but at least users of IE8 and IE7 are no longer just getting the small-screen styles. It’s a hack, and not a particularly clever one.

Was it worth it? Is it an improvement?

I think this is something to remember when we’re coming up solutions to “dealing with” older versions of Internet Explorer: whether it’s a dumb solution like mine or a clever solution like Jake’s, we shouldn’t have to do this. We shouldn’t have to worry about IE7 just like we don’t have to worry about Netscape 4 or Mosaic or Lynx; we should be free to build according to the principles of progressive enhancement safe in the knowledge that older, less capable browsers won’t get all the bells and whistles, but they will be able to access our content. Instead we’re spending time coming up with hacks and polyfills to deal with one particular family of older, less capable browsers simply because of their disproportionate market share.

When we come up with clever hacks and polyfills for dealing with older versions of Internet Explorer, we shouldn’t feel pleased about it. We should feel angry.

Update: I’ve written a follow-up post to clarify what I’m talking about here.

Have you published a response to this? :