Almost 10 years ago, YouTube began to display a banner for Internet Explorer 6 users, warning that support for Microsoft's browser would be "phasing out" soon. It was a message that appeared on all YouTube pages, at a time when IE6 users accounted for about 18 percent of all YouTube traffic. Frustrated at the admission of the old browser, a group of YouTube engineers had devised a plan to end Internet Explorer 6.
"We began to fantasize collectively about how we could take revenge on IE6," reveals Chris Zacharias, a former Google and YouTube. engineer. "The plan was very simple. We would place a small banner on top of the video player that would only be shown to IE6 users. " A group of engineers implemented this banner, knowing that most YouTube employees who use the company's storage environment would not even see it. At the time, Google had acquired YouTube a few years before the announcement of IE6 and the video sharing site had not fully adapted to Google's infrastructure and policies.
YouTube engineers had created a special set of permissions called "OldTuber", so they could bypass Google's code enforcement policies and make changes directly to the YouTube base code with limited code revisions. Zacharias and some other engineers were granted OldTuber permits, which allows them to place the banner with very little supervision. "We saw an opportunity before us to permanently paralyze the IE6 that we could never have again," admits Zacharias.
The banner appeared in July 2009, and press coverage was approved immediately. The impulse of Google to end the support of Internet Explorer 6 on YouTube. "The first person to come to our desks was the public relations team leader," explains Zacharias. All major technology publications asked why YouTube threatened to eliminate compatibility with IE6, at a time when the browser was still used frequently. "We enthusiastically [PR] relied on everything we had launched and helped them develop the necessary points of conversation to broaden the narrative already established by the media."
Two Google lawyers also wanted to know why YouTube had the banner in place. "They immediately demanded that we remove the banner," reveals Zacharias. Lawyers were concerned that Chrome was first promoted as an alternative browser, which raised fears about EU regulators seeking anticompetitive behavior. But it turns out that YouTube engineers had programmed the banner to randomly display browsers such as Firefox, Internet Explorer 8 and eventually Opera, and showed it to the lawyers. "Happy with the demonstration, the lawyers quickly retreated to their desks without further worries," says Zacharias.
The banner was extended to other Google properties. The Google Docs team added a similar warning message about IE6 support. "One of his engineers who did tests on IE6 noticed the YouTube ad shortly after it was launched and immediately took it to his manager as proof of why they should do the same," explains Zacharias. Google's internal chat focused on the Docs team that added the IE6 banner, so the original YouTube engineering team "somehow overlooked the detection as the originators of the IE6 banner within Google."
The result was a massive drop in Internet Explorer 6 traffic for YouTube. "Within a month, our YouTube user base IE6 was halved and more than 10 percent of overall IE6 traffic had been reduced, while all other browsers increased in corresponding amounts," says Zacharias. "The results were better than our web development team had ever wanted."
YouTube's engineering management finally realized what had happened, but it was too late and "they came grudgingly to the conclusion that the ends justified the means." YouTube's rebellious engineers succeeded with their secret plan to kill Internet Explorer 6, and by April 2012 the use of IE6 had fallen below one percent in the United States. Even Microsoft was celebrating the death of IE6.
The complete story of Chris Zacharias is well worth reading all the details of this unusual plan to kill IE6.