If you're in the Coast Guard, you're using Internet Explorer 6

coast guard boat

Over at usabilitypost.com , Dmitry Fadeyev posted a brief but good writeup about why we should drop support for IE6 in order to give people a reason to upgrade. Based on a recent experience I had at a focus group on a Coast Guard base here in California, that may be harder in large organizations than regular run-of-the-mill users. If you’re in the Coast Guard, you might not have any other choice.

At the company I work at, we recently did a focus group at a Coast Guard base. As we filed into the computer lab where our focus groupees were all gathered, I took notice of the equipment in the room.

There were about 15 new Dell desktops arrayed out in neat, military-precise rows. At the head of the room was a pull-down screen upon which a state of the art projector displayed the screen from the instructor’s computer. The instructor machine was actually located in the back of the room inside a sophisticated, well-kept server rack. Neatly arrayed cables strung from the rack to the keyboard/flatscreen monitor combo at the head of the room. For a mouse, they used a very modern hand-held presentation mouse that could act as either a normal mouse or be held in the air. All in all, it was a very impressive setup.

As we sat down at the front of the room facing the collected Coasties that would give their feedback for the next hour, I was able to see the desktops more clearly. While my memory doesn’t serve to let me remember the precise model, each Dell was a small, sleek, compact unit mounted onto the back of each monitor. The support sticker was clearly visible on the back of each machine, stating the support period extended until well into 2011. Underneath the Dell support stickers were the shiny Microsoft Windows Vista stickers. While I don’t remember what version of Vista the stickers indicated, I clearly remember they were not Vista-compatible stickers. These babies came with Vista pre-installed.

Over the course of the next hour, we reviewed different aspects of our site for the focus group. Took their questions and feedback, and answered where possible. But I noticed one thing right away – the instructor computer was not only running Windows XP, but the only browser available on the system was Internet Explorer 6! My first thought was that the instructor machine was likely an older model. Significantly older, but obviously not upgraded with the other shiny new Dells set out in front of each of our respected service members.

That was until I caught a glimpse of one of the desktops with the Vista sticker. Running Windows XP, with some random military-specific web page open in IE6.

My god, I thought. Are all of these machines running such out of date and security-problem-ridden software? Our military members need better than this! More armor, better healthcare, and at least relatively modern and safe software!

The man that I think was the IT administrator was an older gentleman. He seemed to be hanging in the back working on wires and such, but beyond such superficial clues I have no way of knowing.

We finished our focus group, gratefully thanked all of the men and women for taking the time to meet with us, and we made our way out for a tour of the base and chow at the mess hall.

As a web developer and long-term technologist, I find it distressing when an organization as large as the military is seemingly behind the times in regards to the software side of their technology infrastructure. From the observations I made that day, brand new machines that had a much more secure operating system and browser pre-installed were downgraded to something from circa 5 years ago. That’s a very clear sign of the problems of keeping users up to date when dealing with the software policies of large, monolithic organizations.

Whether it be corporations or government agencies, this will be a continuing source of concern for moving web applications forward by encouraging these groups to upgrade their users to the latest and most secure browsers. Monolithic policies rarely are able to keep up with the times, which usually leaves them more vulnerable to new security threats than smaller, more nimble organizations.

As a disclaimer, I want to say that the opinions in this piece are mine and not my employer. Additionally, the comments and observations I recall here are strictly ones that I personally made and may not reflect the actual policies of the Coast Guard or US military at large. I never interviewed any IT staff at the base nor did I ask questions about how or why their computer systems were set up as they are. Everything I have written in this post was strictly based on my own observations at the time.

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