The Web’s Undead

The Web's Undead

For most people, the web looks and feels like things are all peachy — vibrant, alive, new, fresh. However for those of us in the know, below this facade exists a consistent cycle of death and rebirth.

While many technologies and practices have left this world and passed on to the next (R.I.P Netscape), some have been more resilient. Supposedly dead elements of the web are rising from the grave, continuing to haunt us.

This article will explore the state of the web zombie invasion!

Nature of the Beast

I’m an avid horror film fan. I love television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and movies like 28 Days Later. The idea of "beings" which shouldn’t exist (like vampires, ghosts, mummies, and zombies) highlights the similar thoughts and feelings I receive when viewing the source code of some pretty awful websites from back in the early days.

For the novice coder who hasn’t explored the history of our craft, these undead beings may blend into the landscape rather well. But unbeknownst to them is the debris of the "abandoned web" — and the perpetuation of this cycle.

IE6 is considered dead to such an extent that an unofficial funeral was given in its honour!IE6 is considered dead to such an extent that an unofficial funeral was given in its honour!

When I talk about zombies on the web, I’m not referring to the stereotype of the old-school "web surfer" who naively wanders around the internet, clicking on every get rich in 24 hours link to get malware infections — no, not those guys.

On the web, my zombies refer to the browsers, technologies, code and design practices that are officially dead, but continue to live.

Let’s talk about the walking dead, starting with web browsers.

Zombie Browsers

Of the many different types of web zombies that exist, the noticeable case of outdated versions of web browsers hold the potential for being most dangerous.

Ironically, these are the types of creatures that we hold the least amount of control over. We all know the agony of giving post-mortem support for Internet Explorer 6 (which passed its use-by-date eons ago when Microsoft issued its replacement, IE7). And we fondly remember the Netscape browser that IE killed. However, the scariest thing is that, even today, there are people who can’t or won’t let go of their undead browsers by taking five minutes to upgrade.

The invasion of zombie browsers is still an ongoing battle.The invasion of zombie browsers is still an ongoing battle.

Because we can’t control the zombie browsers, the issue of those infected (staggering around using these dead shells) often becomes a matter of containment (patching our work) or in Zombieland style, killing their life support.

It's a scary thought how many dead browsers exist out there on our clients' machines.It’s a scary thought how many dead browsers exist out there on our clients’ machines.

In regards to the ethics of zombie support, some of us take the Shaun of the Dead approach. Because some people still have an attachment to their "undeceased" browsers (e.g. IE6), rather than shooting them up with "Upgrade your browser now!" messages or forcing them into a wasteland of zero tolerance, we keep them alive through hacks and special stylesheets — the developer equivalent of how Shaun from the movie kept his best friend, zombie Ed, alive in his shed.

Rather comical perhaps — but in many ways, some of us go out of our way to give leniency towards zombie browsers.

Zombie Technologies

Whereas we can easily spot the zombie browser — they stagger around the web confused at what CSS3, HTML5, and other modern standards mean — one of the more frustrating types of zombies are web technologies and standards that have already died, but developers still cling onto.

One perfect example of a zombie technology is Wireless Markup Language (WML). Due to the evolution of the smartphone market, modern mobile devices can now render regular HTML.

The peak days of WML may be over, but the BBC still shows this web zombie some love!The peak days of WML may be over, but the BBC still shows this web zombie some love!

While WML itself is deprecated (W3C’s way of pronouncing something dead) — and let’s face it, it wasn’t exactly the real web in the first place — there are still some with old mobile phones wanting to access the web even through a subpar viewing experience.

To this day, there are still developers who insist on providing or maintaining WML versions of their website to cater to this zombie technology, and while their care for users with old cell phones is admirable, their contribution to the proliferation of a zombie web standard is not.

Testing your website using a variety of older handsets shows how bad things are getting.Testing your website using a variety of older handsets shows how bad things are getting.

Old technologies being replaced by new ones is nothing new to the nature of the web. And I suppose that like web browsers, there will become an epidemic point where the number of undead languages goes far beyond the number of living ones, which may be problematic for beginners deciding what they need to learn.

The case of undead technologies isn’t so much of an issue of support — as we modern web developers tend to comply with current web standards — but that of excess baggage that the web’s future is going to have to deal with.

Zombie Code

This zombie is something which most of us want to see dealt with in the harshest possible manner because it’s something that we have control and choice over.

While undead languages maintain some level of support for the sake of older browsers or devices, using deprecated HTML tags (e.g. <font>, <marquee>, <blink>) and non-standard/proprietary CSS (e.g. -ms-overflow-y) to solve today’s design tasks becomes proof of poor quality craftsmanship and thought by certain developers.

Revenge of the fallen markup -- deprecated code still exists in modern web designs.Revenge of the fallen markup — deprecated code still exists in modern web designs.

While we may consider zombie code as just an annoyance, let’s be clear and state they’re not completely benign.

The most worrying thing about zombie code is the danger of future browsers stopping the support of these deprecated and non-standard coding practices. What happens to these sites? They will still be floating around in cyberspace, waiting to be visited by a potential client, who’ll later come to us asking for their site’s logo to blink and scroll.

From past experience, I know of developers even today who still maintain and produce websites (professionally, I might add) using the kind of source code we would have expected to see in the early 90s — and it shocks me just as if I saw a real zombie straight out of 28 Days Later.

Separating structure from style is the modern convention, yet zombie code still works in modern browsersSeparating structure from style is the modern convention, yet zombie code still works in modern browsers.

In much the same way as that of dead browsers or dead technologies, education will ultimately be the way to combat this epidemic of outdated code — code that "works" but does so using undead coding habits.

The number of casualties of the original browser wars  has served us a lesson of what happens when militant code becomes so disproportionate that web professionals are forced to deal with each browser individually (with the mobile device war, it could happen again).

Zombie Design Practices

Finally, we have something that is near and dear to my heart — the sympathetic case of what could easily qualify as design zombies.

We all remember the days of the early web: Table-based layouts (a zombie practice still widespread), obtrusive JavaScripts, spacer gifs, statistics counters, flashing banners, animated clipart, "designed for" banners, phoney website awards and background music (often blended to form an epileptic massacre of color).

While it could be seen that many of these practices have evolved into new strains, the issue of outdated design is as apparent today as ever.

Sites as bad of this can still be found on the web, and in many cases they're still maintained!Sites as bad of this can still be found on the web, and in many cases they’re still maintained!

Design is one subject that — with the web’s evolution — has managed to maintain a level of historical value with itself. If you’ve ever visited a newly launched website and thought, "Wow, this website looks retro in a bad way" — that’s a sign that you’re on a site designed using undead practices.

While zombie designs seem insignificant — as the code can itself be very well crafted using best practices and standards — they do nourish a sentiment of a lack of regard towards usability, accessibility, user experience and modern aesthetic appeal, making the design zombie an interesting foe.

Another well-intentioned website, with the aesthetic design value of a zombie.Another well-intentioned website, with the aesthetic design value of a zombie.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when asked to spot a vampire, Buffy looked for people in the club wearing seriously outdated clothes. While this is funny — it’s also true that having something so old looking that we could probably carbon date it will ultimately affect our users’ experience.

Education (surprise, surprise) seems to be the best way forward in eliminating undead designs.

The Circle of Life

With future standards like HTML5 and CSS3 emerging, brand new zombies from the array of existing standards will continue to rise.

Maintaining a skill set and knowledge base that is up to date — and staying ahead of the curve — is the best way to avoid the reoccurrence of zombie practices and habits.

And while some of the web’s afterlife will continue to exist without causing too much harm, there comes a time where such undead beings can ultimately lead us into a spiral of escalating annoyance and rot.

Details about standards aren't that hard to come by when you know where to look.Details about standards aren’t that hard to come by when you know where to look.

It’s worth pointing out that the web has an interestingly rich history full of technologies which, though ousted by something newer, may still hold a place in our world.

While in a perfect world, the transcendence from one to the next should be the ideal solution, newborn standards (like XHTML 2.0) can die before their time. As such, don’t think of zombies simply as the old stuff — they can be new stuff that didn’t quite fully form yet but may have been early-adopted by some. Perceptions can lead to accidental shootings and you don’t want to give the death sentence to a practice that has legitimate value.

XHTML 2.0 unfortunately didn't make it to fruition and thus became a newborn zombie.XHTML 2.0 unfortunately didn’t make it to fruition and thus became a newborn zombie.

Old standards die and new standards appear in their place — that’s just the way of the web. The circle of life is well intentioned, it moves us forward to bigger and brighter things. The solution isn’t to stop innovation — that’s just crazy — but culling the ever-increasing zombie population that still exists.

As an industry, it’s our duty to use what skill, knowledge and network we have to push back the zombie invasion. And while I’m not saying you should go after IE6 users with holy water and a crucifix, you could take a more civil approach through education and conversations.

If you know someone with web zombies, why not spend a few minutes explaining the problem and helping them make an informed choice? Every outdated element on the web we can eliminate is worth fighting against. Especially if we don’t want the web to be a haunted graveyard.

Related Content

About the Author

Alexander Dawson is a freelance web designer, author and recreational software developer specializing in web standards, accessibility and UX design. As well as running a business called HiTechy and writing, he spends time on Twitter, SitePoint’s forums and other places, helping those in need.

This was published on Jul 28, 2010


Martin Westin Jul 28 2010

The unfortunate truth about IE6 is that many companies still have it as their default “official” browser. Not out Of lazyness or incompetence… Well… We’ll ser about that last one.

The reason is rather sad. They have invester untold resources to developed intranets and internal web applications that …. Tada… Only work in IE6. In short upgrading the browser would out many employees in a position where they are not able to do their job.

I personally this this is a rather lame excuse but I also understand that for large companies it is a problem to commit resources to upgrade massive ammounts of internal web code just to play nice with a new browser. To a non techy excecutive it sounds like money down the drain.

Rashad Majali Jul 28 2010

One of the most amusing articles I’ve ever read about web. Excellent, Alexander Dawson :)

DataQ Jul 28 2010

Great article. I personally am guilty of leaving some of those zombies alive on the web, but if the client is not willing to pay to update his or her website as long as it still works, there’s nothing I can do about it.

@Martin Westin: the reason you mentioned has been brought up times and times again, but it’s in no way an excuse to use an outdated browser. If they want to use it on intranets, fine by me. Just as long as they don’t bring it out in the wild and complain “the Internet is broken”.

Besides there is the possibility to have several browsers installed on the same machine. Just use a modern one to browse the web. It’s most likely safer than using a stone age one.

Niubi Jul 28 2010

Interesting article. It would have been nice to provide some links to really bad zombie websites, I do enjoy looking at terrible websites! Also, do you think DubLi deserves to be on this list?

Jacob Gube Jul 28 2010

@Martin Westin: Yes, that is the reality of working with huge, multinational corporations. But the idea is to cordon off/quarantine web zombies to those situations that absolutely need this. :) I’ve worked with governmental agencies, I’m unfortunately very familiar with the situation.

@DataQ: No, you’re right, it’s impractical to update your work for free, of course. I think the important thing is that you don’t create more web zombies. Truly old sites will eventually disappear — and businesses who don’t see any value in paying someone to update their site may eventually abandon their site as well (i.e. not pay their hosting bill). That situation takes care of itself. What’s more concerning is the continuation of these practices which spawns more web zombies that can be avoided.

Jordan Walker Jul 28 2010

The dawn of the internet dead.

Zombie websites are a dime a dozen. There’s a decade’s worth of old practices out there. Check out It’s a great site that showcases the worst web design practices you’ll ever see.

Nick Gorrell Jul 28 2010

I still feel that IE6 endures simply because it was the browser that came packaged with the last ‘easily cracked’ Windows OS – Windows XP.

The Genuine Advantage tools simply prevent anyone with a dodgy version of XP from updating their browser, so many people have simply stuck with it, despite Firefox, Safari and Chrome all being free to download, regardless of whether your OS is legitimate or not. Whether they’re lazy or uneducated, at the end of the day, I’m not wasting my time building a site to cater for the IE6 crowd. Catch up or get left behind!

Having said that, any business who runs pirated operating systems or out of date software with security holes because they’re too cheap to buy legit versions, is not a business I would feel comfortable investing time and money in.

Martin Westin Jul 28 2010

My point was not to condone the use of crapoy old browsers. It was to illustrate that it is a bit more complex an just “not wanting to upgrade”.

However bad, these multinationals do have a reason for not updating. Any ideas on how to get then to catch up to the rest of the world?

One problem is tha fallout. You have a small web application and you are making some money… Then Big Corp calls you up (or your boss) and wants to use your app… $30M in new business… Only they need it to work in IE6. How many startups are really goi to take that stand on principle and say: This is a good time for you to upgrade your company browser… Get back to us when you are on IE8 or Firefox.

I don’t knowledge how to solve this… I just knowledge it is a bit more complex than a few people hitting Windows Update.

Alexander Dawson Jul 28 2010

Glad you enjoyed the article guys! I think the main thing to realise is that zombies will always manage to rise from the ashes of web (as let’s face it – everything has a shelf life), the key as in any zombie movie is to keep your wits about you, keep your tools and weapons handy and try your best to fend off the invasion whenever you’re given the opportunity! :)

hollsk Jul 28 2010

Couple of problems with this, viz:
I do quite a bit of work for the BBC and you’ve ever seen the sort of things those guys have to support on the web then you would run away shrieking over the nearest cliff. They have to support some fairly strange products because their userbase is so varied and also because if they *don’t* support some antiquated browser that happens to be being used by somebody with a particular disability, they open themselves up to litigation via the Disability Discrimination Act. It doesn’t apply to all projects, and it doesn’t apply to all developers. It does apply to the BBC who you must bear in mind produce public service information websites that are used by a much wider audience than most of the products you will find yourself building, so they’re not really the best example to use here.

Problem number 2 is the outdated code one – tags and tabular layouts and all that jazz are still necessary for those HTML email campaigns that marketers are so fond of. Some versions of Lotus Notes that are still in existence can’t even support XHTML-style self-closing tags, nevermind CSS. What I’m finding increasingly is that front end developers frequently have no idea about the sort of pitfalls that are involved in building HTML emails and even if you sit them down and tell them “you need to do this as though it’s 1999” they just don’t have the technical experience and know-how to be able to do it in a way that will render acceptably. One of the main reasons for this major gap in understanding is because the community says “all of this is bad and old and if you do it you are wrong and stupid” so the impression that new entrants to the industry get is that this kind of coding is something that they don’t need to know about beyond saying that it’s wrong and you shouldn’t use it. It’s unfortunately not that simple, and I would expect a competent front end developer to understand the tools in their toolbox and use them as appropriate, even if some of those tools have been in the biz longer than the developer has.

An interesting article, but it does lack some dimensions…

Briana Malmstrom Jul 28 2010

KILLER blog post! I provide internet marketing and rep management services to horror and dark art clientele andstrive to find creative ways to integrate horror and design/marketing on my site and blog. This post is right up my alley! Knowledgable, creative, humorous, interesting and horror-savvy. I’m sharing this post all day today! You stay freaky, Alexander! KUDOS!

Alexander Dawson Jul 28 2010

@hollsk: I completely understand the problems that the BBC must face in regards to having to support older technologies, and I know that it’s unrealistic to expect that all zombies can be killed off (let’s face it, zombies by movie definition keep coming back from the dead), however I think it’s only fair to highlight that there’s only so much hand holding for old technologies you can do before you actually help the problem fester to an extent where the future of the web will rely on giving support for supports sake. While you’re certainly not “bad” for doing what you need to-do, and we still need to acknowledge the ways of old (such as for HTML emails), education (as I stated) will be key in helping those trapped in a zombie state break free of their condition (arguably having to use WML is a technological disability in itself).

@Briana Malmstrom: Glad you liked the read!

Tektoniq Jul 28 2010

I’ll make a case for WebTV (now known as MSN TV 2 Internet and Media Player).

It’s the best browser I’ve found for someone such as my 73 year old mother who doesn’t want to deal with the complexities of an OS. It boots immediately and there are never system pop ups instructing her to upgrade this or patch that. It simply works, and works simply which is great for her.

It’s also keyboard controlled so she can easily tab between links versus navigating with a mouse. And with it’s wireless keyboard, she can surf the web in a comfortable chair using her TV rather than a monitor (which also makes it a very low cost appliance for her to do everything she needs to on the web).

Granted, it can’t load Flash and has limited memory, but if you code with good standards, the issues are minimal.

Bram Van der Sype Jul 28 2010

Very interesting read, especially because the problem recently cropped up at my workplace.

On a side note: thanks for the Shaun of the Dead spoiler…

Jason Jul 28 2010

@hollsk – here here

While I love reading these types of blogs – there is a general sense among younger designers that new = cool and cool = better.

Most of my clients are up to date with there own browsers but they serve clients who are (for whatever reason) not. I’d love to see one of these “update or get left behind” guys ask the board if they wouldn’t mind losing 20% of their customers this year because CSS3 is neato. Or maybe we could still do all the cool stuff – but charge way more for the project so we can make everything work in all browsers. sigh.

Bradley Jul 28 2010

That was a fun read. It is hard to believe that people still use IE6. They do show up in my analytics though. So I know they are out there!

The percentages are so low though, that it seems a waste of resources to accommodate an outdated browser. That is the information I typically convey to my clients. Haven’t had any complaints about not supporting IE6.

Would I be admitting my age if I said I think I spotted a Mosaic logo in a couple of the images?

Young Jul 28 2010

i personally miss center tags. they made so much sense to me ever since i started teaching myself HTML as a 13-year-old, and now apparently the only way to do it is by using a div…if i’m wrong please correct me!

a tag i have been praying for is a “tab” like function that aligns elements. i hate having to play around with floats and clears to line up input fields and labels…does anyone know if this is on the map?

RIP netscape though. I have a feeling it would have been less CSS-annoying than IE had it prevailed…

Amber Weinberg Jul 28 2010

Ugh it’s always an absolute pain to edit other developer’s code when they’re not coding correctly. As for IE6, I dropped support for it long ago and none of my clients have complained thankfully.

Matt Constantinou Jul 29 2010

Great read, always love a zombie themed post.

In regards to the issue of users not updating from IE 6 I read a great study that compared browser upgrade patterns to modes of announcing browser updates.

It basically boiled down to IE 6 dosnt have the “in your face” update mechanism that FF, Chrome etc have. If you combine this with the fact that most corporations have systems (not just intranet apps) that were designed for XP (which came stock with ie6) and wouldn’t run on vista. You end up with a situation where people simply aren’t exposed to newer browsers.

Also its seems older generations and casual computer users equate the IE “e” with internet, in that they don’t think of IE (and that “e”) as a browser but rather the internet itself.

Troy Peterson Jul 29 2010

The arguement of using ie6 because it works with their intranet is easily solved by simply pointing to the issue Google experienced in China a few months ago.

Where journalists gmail accounts were invaded because they were using ie6.

In the situations I’ve ran into, where an executive pointed to the investment, I simply turn around and explain the “investment” they’ll have to make once they’re hacked.

Scott Graham Jul 29 2010


Both of the “tags” you’re looking for would be to specifically control layout.

One major aim of semantic coding is to separate code and layout.

If you code properly, changing the position of elements with stylesheets should be straightforward.

donT forget not eve rybody learn web programming,havenT $ to pay web workers, & others just have fun to make their own site & evoluting across time . . .
can someone best web programmer if his/her site ugliest than the last fun made fastshit : )

Semmu Jul 29 2010

very good article. and very true :D

WWizard Jul 29 2010

the absolute favorite of mine of internet zombies (love this combination) is MS Frontpage…

like a king of all of them… mr. Losser … sorry Gates :D

Bratu Sebastian Jul 29 2010

Man, I loved the amateur websites !

They look like 1995. And yes, supporting zombie browsers is a mess.

Anyone else wonder what the world would be like if Netscape had prevailed over IE? Come on Firefox, Chrome and Safari – stab that hideous IE beast right through it’s shriveled little heart!

Shikeb Ali Jul 29 2010

This is the best article I read in the month of July, so for me its the “Article of the month”.

thanks Alexander, for giving us such a creepy article.(LOL)

I know i hate designing for these.

Brian Jul 30 2010

@Mark Westin and others

Unfortunately, we’re starting to get helpdesk complaints that the internet isn’t working properly. Our internal systems seem to be okay but when people go to various sites, the admins have stopped worrying about whether IE6 works. We are stuck with XP instead of Win7 because we have literally hundreds of internal applications that were designed specifically for IE6 (with all the crap code). Some of these apps would require hundreds of man-hours to upgrade because the pages are dynamically built.

Dibley Jul 30 2010

I have to agree with Martin Westin about companies not wanting to invest in the change. I worked for New Look Retailers for three years as an internal developer. At the point I left in July 2009 I would guess about 95% of their internally developed intranet applications were designed purely for IE6. Even though the internal developer team raised issues about future proofing, it always fell on deaf ears a couple of rungs up the ladder.

To get round the support for non IE6 supporting websites Firefox was installed on the machines of those that really needed it. And that was the solution!

I wonder what state they are in now…

Dibley Jul 30 2010

@Young: RE: aligning elements, maybe take a look at what margin settings in css can do for you. Specifically margin-left.

There are often many wasy to skin a cat in html!

Tom A Jul 31 2010

Yes, the reason IE6 survives in web site log files is because it is built into so many old devices and applications, not because users are using the browser itself. And most of these apps and devices cannot be updated, only replaced.

The next web zombie will be Javascript. It is kept alive by layers of libraries like webkit that try to tame it, but it is a crappy programming language. I hope HTML6 I will deprecate Javascript in favor of a declarative UI language like XAML. (Some XAML-like language will have to be developed and adopted as a standard.)

Otome Charles Opuoro Jul 31 2010

Man, you are really amusing. A most engaging. I was real tired prior to reading, but your comical writing, illustrated with Zombies, Vampires, the fictional undead kept me reading. Man, what would you say is an alternative to structuring UI controls on a Web Page other than using tables. You did say using tables is a Zombie practice? Please do answer. Cheers man. This was a good one.

Michael Tuck Jul 31 2010

Hakuna Matata, Alex! Or, more appropriately, “braaaaiiinnnns, I want braaaiiinnnnsssss….” I’ll reread your article with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

drkbl Aug 01 2010

I choose WAP over HTML when possible on my phones (an E52 smartphone and an Arena touchscreen one) due to the much faster operation and much less traffic. HTML on mobile is for feeding the always hungry telcos.

Andrew Cooper Aug 01 2010

Another brilliant article, Alex, and it makes it all the more better because you’ve integrated your favourite genre of television programme with it! ;)

I can’t say I disagree with anything in this article – It’s all spot on for me, personally. As for the constant cropping up of the Web’s Undead, I think we should take the same militant approach that they took in the film 28 Weeks Later.

Poorly written article.
The phrase: “We all remember the days of the early web: Table-based layouts (a zombie practice still widespread)” is a personal opinion, not a current developing fact. The facts are, that nearly 75 of enterprise websites use tables regularly to parse complex date. Current developer tools also still use tables as the primary layout method. It’s nice to wish things were a certain way (and I agree with that), but the reality is not as stated. Make sure you get the facts right before publishing articles like this or readers will start to ignore your articles and site. FYI.

Jacob Gube Aug 01 2010

@JB: I hope you’re just trolling us, I really do.

brainspills Aug 01 2010

@JB: Can you state which tools you are referring to in your statement “Current developer tools also still use tables as the primary layout method”?

Great read and comments!

thebrisbaneline Aug 10 2010

I’ve made the educated choice not to support IE6 in my own personal portfolio but in the wider business world, IE6 still takes up a very sizeable market share. I personally blame IT departments in big corporations for their ignorance when it comes to the web and sticking to the ‘it works fine’ mentality of an IT support geek.

Edwin Sandoval Aug 30 2010

Great post, it makes me to rember my old day in the Web Development.

billubhai Sep 23 2010

its very nice its maximum

Ok I’m a bit late to the party, but since we’re talking about zombies…

I really wish this one would stay dead:

Sorry – just a pet peeve of mine.

Just found you guys today. Enjoyed the article & planning on reading more :)

Mari Rosa Nov 15 2010

Looking at those zombies sites…I want to say:
“What is this?! I don’t even…”

kamran yaqoob Jan 01 2011

I really wish this one would stay dead:

Sorry – just a pet peeve of mine.

Who says people have to use these bloated new web technologies and silly modern conventions? I’d much rather visit a bunch of Geocities-era sites than these bloated modern sites that eat up all your RAM with their bloated, pointless technologies. A website doesn’t need silly crap like HTML5, CSS3, or whatever the hell else just to get some information across.

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