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Articles - Cross Browser Compatibility

Sure, it looks great in Internet Explorer 6, but.....

A few years ago, there weren't many different versions of web browsers to choose from. Now there are dozens. Actually, there's over 100 different browsers, not counting different versions of the same product. Quite a number of these names I had never heard of before - here's a list of browsers currently available:

1X, Act 10, ActiveBrowser, Active Worlds, Alice, Amaya, ANT Fresco, Arachne, AvantGo, AWeb-II, Beonex Communicator, Browse-X, Charon, Chimera, CipherNet, Clickgarden, CrystalPort, CubicEye, DocZilla, E:ID Frame, Encompass, Enigma, Escape, ezWAP, FairLighHTML Viewer, Fast Browser, Firefox, Galeon, Go.Web, Grail, Grasshopper V1, Home Page Reader, HotJava, iBrowse, IBrowser, iBrowserPlus, iCab, ICE Browser, I-Comm, iConnecter, InfoScanner, Internet Explorer, IPowerPortal WebBrowser, KBrowser MIPS Edition, KBrowser Palm Edition, Kidnet Explorer, Klondike Web Browser, K-Meleon, Konqueror, Konqueror/Embedded, Links, Lynx, Lynx for Amiga, Micro Digital Browser, Mobile Explorer, Mozilla, MSN Explorer, Multilingual Mosaic, MultiWeb 

but wait, there's more!......

Neoplanet, Nestor, Netcaptor, NetClue, NetPositive, NetRaider, Netscape, Net-Tamer, Newt's Cape, Nokia Wap Browser, oKID Browser, Oligo, OmniWeb, Openwave Mobile Browser, Opera, Orangotango VirtualBrowser, Oregano, Palmscape, Pendragon Browser, Pixo Internet Microbrowser, Planetweb browser, Pocket Browser, Palm Browser, Pocket IE, ProxiWeb, Q.Bati, RapidBrowser, Safari, Safexplorer, SlipKnot, SpeedSeek Portal Solution, SPIN, StarDesktop, TV Interactor, UltraBrowser, ViOS, Voyager, w3m, Wapaka, WAPman, Web, WebsterXL, WebPhace, WebTV, WeMedia Talking Browser, Whack Force, WWW/LX, XBrowser, Yalzer, Yoozee.

Choice is a wonderful thing, but the proliferation of browser software has also increased confusion in consumers as to what they should use. It has also been the major bugbear of web developers.

The good news for developers is that the vast majority of web surfers use either Internet Explorer, Firefox and Netscape - approximately 95%. The bad news is that there are over 200 flavours of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Netscape. Web pages can look totally different between the different versions.

The common argument used by web developers to avoid dealing with compatibility issues is that as the percentage of people using Netscape is relatively low, around the 10% mark globally, - it isn't worthwhile taking those users into account. This is probably not a wise way approach the issue, especially for an ecommerce based site. 10% can make a big difference to your bottom line, as it's not only Internet Explorer users who buy goods and services online. 

You may be of the opinion "my server logs show that only 5 percent of my visitors use Netscape, so I'm not going to bother too much about cross browser compatibility". Perhaps you would have more Netscape visitors by making some minor changes to your coding that would better present your web material to them. Netscape users also have a tendency to switch to IE from time to time. If they have had a bad experience on your site using Netscape, they may not even bother visiting it again under a different browser.

Even if you do target your site to a particular brand of browser; you then need to contend with different versions of that brand. For example; a site designed for IE5.5 may look different under IE4.

The simple solution is for everyone to upgrade their browser? True, but who are we to dictate what people use on their systems? Some people do not have the equipment capable to do this. The later versions of Internet Explorer demand massive system resources.

The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) has been battling for years for software companies to produce "compliant" browsers. The idea of compliancy, amongst other things, is to guarantee that a web page looks the same under any browser. Many browsers circulating now are not "compliant". Unfortunately, the W3C has had an uphill battle in this but does seem to making some ground. 

A visit to the W3C site is mind boggling. Many standards that were introduced by this organization years ago are only just beginning to become accepted. Added to this their tendency to introduce new standards on a regular basis, and the complexity of those standards, I feel that they aren't doing themselves too many favors on the quick uptake of new technologies. 

On the other end of the scale, much of the software used for producing web sites is notorious for creating non-compliant and garbage code. I use FrontPage, but to combat some of the garbage that it creates, I also utilize Notepad. Cleaner coding also makes your pages more search engine friendly. FrontPage is great for rapid application development, but it contains many features that aren't cross-browser compatible. I have also trialed other major packages, but found the same issues. Once again, the W3C has given many guidelines for software developers to adopt, but the industry is very slow on the uptake. Perhaps the whole process of developing standards needs to be re-examined.

While there are many sites that will offer you advice on cross browser compatibility; I still find the best way to deal with the issue is to run a variety of browsers on a system and test pages as they are being developed under various resolutions. Then experiment; with the experimentation will come a great deal of learning....

When first attempting to deal with cross-browser issues on my site, I followed some advice of industry leaders and found the advice to be flawed, and I am still working out the bugs in my major site. A word of warning - if you are running a later version of IE on your system, I would advise against attempting to install an earlier version; it can really mess with your system. The best option in this situation is to view your site from another system, or ask an associate with an earlier version to review your site and to send screen captures if a problem appears. Aim to make your site compatible with all IE and Netscape browsers from version 4 onwards and all Firefox versions. 

Ask yourself before implementing that whizz-bang menu system or element that requires a plug-in - "is it really necessary?". Most people surf the net for information, not entertainment at this stage - they have a TV for that. "Eye Candy" may impress visitors the first time around, but after that if it slows down the performance of your site, it will serve only to annoy them. The exception to this rule of course is if you are developing an entertainment-centric site.

If you receive emails from angry visitors stating that your site looks like manure; perhaps instead of disregarding the comments or firing back a retaliatory note, you should investigate by asking for details. It may prove to be a beneficial exercise. The site may be looking fine to you on your system, but perhaps it's not the case with the browsers that some visitors are using.

The truth is, tailoring a site for cross browser compatibility is a pain. "Compliancy" by W3C standards by no means indicates compatibility with all browsers. But the benefits of taking that bit of extra time can pay off in the long run by allowing you to get your message across, or to secure sales from a wider customer base.

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
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