At the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco on Wednesday, Palm engineers Dion Almaer and Ben Galbraith -- now part of HP -- moderated a panel discussion populated by representatives of the major browser makers, except for Apple.
During the talk, Google's Alex Russell, Mozilla's Brendan Eich, Opera's Charles McCathieNevile, Microsoft's Giorgio Sardo, and JSON creator Douglas Crockford, held forth on where the Web is going.
While there's not yet a consensus on the future of the Web, the panelists agreed that moving ahead is being made more difficult as a result of the ongoing use of IE6.
Almaer referred to Microsoft's outdated browser as "an anchor around our necks."
The tone among the browser engineers was cordial, even laudatory toward Microsoft's eight-year-old browser. It was innovative in its day, they said, but now it's holding back the Web because it doesn't support HTML5.
"Microsoft believes HTML5 is the future of the Web," he said, even as he ducked the question of when Microsoft would support the HTML5 Canvas element.
But as Crockford observed, the future remains mired in the past. Acknowledging that the browser represents the world's most important application delivery system, he said that the standards efforts at ECMA and the HTML5 group are "all irrelevant if we don't solve the IE6 problem."
"A significant portion of the world is on IE6 and they're not getting off," Crockford said, noting that IE6 users represent a larger group than users of Chrome, Safari and Opera combined.
The situation is particularly bad internationally, he said, with 40% of people in some markets still using IE6.
Crockford proposed that the major browser makers choose a day to simultaneously begin redirecting IE6 users to a Web site that asks them to choose a new browser.
Russell, who works on Google Chrome Frame, an IE6 add-on that allows IE6 users to utilize the Chrome rendering engine rather than the native IE6 engine, suggested Chrome Frame could help.
Eich said that enterprise use of IE6, particularly in conjunction with IE6-tuned enterprise applications, represents part of the problem.
Sardo added that Microsoft has been encouraging users to upgrade to IE8. But, as Crockford observed, that's not always a simple option in countries like China where many IE6 users are running unauthorized copies of Windows.
Five years from now, said Eich, IE6 isn't likely to be a concern.
Until then, Web developers will have to continue to swim forward with an anchor around their necks.