The year is 2009. YouTube, four years old, has become the Web’s leading video site. Though Internet Explorer 6 was far from current—it had been superseded by versions 7 and 8—it nonetheless made up some 18 percent of YouTube’s traffic. These were, after all, the dark days of Windows XP; corporations had overwhelmingly stuck with Windows XP in spite of the release of Windows Vista, and Windows 7 was still some months from release.
But Internet Explorer 6 was nearly eight years old and seriously showing its age. On its release, the browser had a legitimate claim to be the best, fastest, most standards compliant, and most stable mainstream browser around. But those days were long gone. Compared to the alternatives—Firefox 3.5, Internet Explorer 8, and Google’s Chrome—it was slow, unstable, and riddled with proprietary, non-standard behaviors. This was causing the team developing YouTube considerable pain, with weeks of extra work each development cycle to ensure that the site still worked correctly in the old browser.
According to former YouTube developer Chris Zacharias, this pain prompted the YouTube team to take renegade action to drive users away from Internet Explorer 6 and onto something newer and better. Though YouTube had been under Google’s ownership for about three years, YouTube’s engineers were suspicious and wary of being integrated into Google’s corporate machine. They had their own special set of permissions named “OldTuber,” and anyone with OldTuber permissions could freely modify the YouTube site without going through Google’s usual change management process of code reviews, testing, adherence to coding standards, and so on. It was cowboy territory, where developers could do as they liked. Only the risk of breaking things—and hence losing OldTuber permissions, if not their job—kept them on the straight and narrow.
The OldTubers decided that they’d show a banner to Internet Explorer 6 users. The banner declared that YouTube would phase out support for their browser “soon” and that they should instead use Firefox, Internet Explorer 8, or Chrome, with those three options shown in a random order to try to avoid being accused of favoring any one browser over the others. Without any oversight or supervision, the banner was duly deployed.
Almost immediately, the tech media spotted the banner and reported on it, earning the OldTubers a visit from a rather taken-aback PR team that was now being asked when and why the end of Internet Explorer 6 support was happening. But since the reaction among the media was largely positive—Internet Explorer 6 being widely recognized as obsolete and irritating for almost all Web developers—the PR team was quickly brought on-side.
Next, the OldTubers had to field questions from company lawyers who were initially worried that the banner appeared to give undue prominence to Chrome, as their browsers showed Chrome first. But their worries were assuaged once the randomization was demonstrated.
But that was about the extent of the reaction; no blowback from senior management, no demands to revert the banner. It turned out that Google Docs had put up its own similar banner at around the same time, and managers assumed that YouTube had simply copied the Docs banner.
A month later, Internet Explorer 6 traffic dropped by half, with the recommended browsers each picking up about 3 percent—the same decline seen across the rest of the Web. With this success, similar banners spread to other Google properties, including Orkut. Microsoft, too, announced that it was no longer supporting Internet Explorer 6 in the Office Web Apps. Google would soon announce a formal end-of-life of support for the old browser, and support was duly dropped on March 13, 2010.
As welcome as this change was, it’s also a little ominous: it shows the substantial influence that Google wielded over the Web. With YouTube a far more substantial presence today than it was in 2009, it’s quite plausible that the advertising giant’s control today is still greater. Google’s power certainly isn’t total—it took several years for Internet Explorer 6’s usage to halve again—but nonetheless, the company plainly used its dominant position in the video market to improve uptake of its own browser.