bad browsers piss me off
The goal of organizations like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has always been to make the World Wide Web as accessible as possible. As an information and communication resource, the web and the internet are almost without peers. Rivals to this crown are largely limited to more specific areas. In order to achieve this goal, the W3C has specified standards for creating and interpreting web-based content. It is hoped that if everyone can design web pages that follow these standards it will ensure their long-term viability.
Consider, for a moment, the television set. Our little TV has been purchased in a store based in the USA. It will happily receive a picture that is composed of 525 scan lines, delivered at a rate of 29.97 frames per second. This is fortunate, because TV signals in the United States are broadcast with 525 scan lines and at a rate of 29.97 times per second. The reason for this happy union is that the standard was defined by the National Television Standards Committee way back in the 1950s.
Now imagine what would happen if one of the broadcasters decided to offer an "enhanced" service that ran at double the number of horizontal lines. A deal might be struck with certain, preferred television manufacturers to produce televisions that could receive the enhanced pictures. Imagine, if you will, a rival broadcaster doing the same thing, with a difference; the second broadcaster decides to broadcast television signals with double the frame rate. This new service is not compatible with the first broadcaster's system, but deals with certain manufacturers ensure that owners of these preferred brands can view the enhanced pictures.
The new systems are clearly an improvement on the established system, but they have proprietary differences. This is exactly what happened in the 1990s when Microsoft and Netscape fought each other in The Battle Of The Browsers. One company would introduce a new standard that wasn't supported by the other and vice versa.
why they are bad
The major browser manufacturers, especially Microsoft, Netscape (now AOL Time Warner) and Opera, have always been leading members of the World Wide Web Consortium, yet despite this fact they have had a poor track record making standards-compliant browsers. Each time a new browser was released that didn't follow the W3C standards, the web became increasingly fragmented. Designers and developers became frustrated because they were forced to accomodate these problems and when they couldn't deliver a web site that would service all users uniformly, they were often unfairly maligned.
It is possible to create web sites that can service many different browsers, but the cost of doing so is very high indeed. It is often necessary to create multiple versions of the same page in order to ensure that the differing browsers will produce the same, coherent result. When budgets are unable to cover the cost of supporting all these browsers, developers are forced to abandon support for some of them and thus lock out potential users. When these users are also potential customers, revenue is lost and it makes it still more difficult.
An alternative method is for designers and developers to use none of the new technologies and rely on code that works happily on the older browsers. The result is that coders can create sites that work uniformly across most browsers, which is good, but at the cost of producing sites that lack both functionality and visual appeal, which is bad.
turning the corner
There is some good news, however. Microsoft and AOL Time Warner have put their toys back in the pram for the time being. The Mozilla Project (now owned by AOL Time Warner), a mission to create a standards-compliant, open source browser and the World Wide Web Consortium, have started to change the browser climate. At the end of the 90s, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 5 which appeared to move closer to standards-compliancy. Subsequent releases have been even better. 2002 finally saw the release of the Gecko engine that powers Mozilla 1.0, Netscape 7.0 and (soon, I am told) America Online 8.0.
the old school is holding us back
So just when things are beginning to look good, a new problem becomes evident. Some people simply refuse to upgrade their browsers. They claim that the older browsers " work better" and that they have a smaller hard drive footprint. A particular pain in the rear is the Netscape 4.x user. Netscape 4.x is the worst of the old browsers because it was a pathetic botch-up. Rather than ignoring some of the new web technologies, like Cascading Style Sheets, it tries to make sense of them. The result is either hilarious or deeply distressing. Once again, developers and designers must try and make the best of it by using hacks to either hide the new technologies from the browser or create workarounds.
At last, the hard core of users that insist on using the older browsers have dwindled in numbers to the point where they account for only about 4% of all users. I believe it is time for designers, developers, manufacturers and business to tell these people to go and fuck themselves.
planning for the future
By losing the need to support Netscape 4.x and other old browsers, developers and designers can remove a huge amount of pointless coding in a single stroke. It will become possible to make use of some of the more advanced technolgies without worrying if a browser can understand them. CSS positioning techniques can be employed to supplement or replace the old hack of using tables. Keeping content separate from presentation makes it easy to create sites that a both accessible and adaptable. Style sheets provide a mechanism for controlling the presentation of structured markup that can be altered to accomodate different user agents with ease. The World Wide Web Consortium has created specifications for new versions of HTML. XHTML, or eXtensible HyperText Markup Language, already comes in several flavors. XHTML is basically an application of XML, or eXtensible Markup Language. XML is the universal format for structured documents and data on the Web. The new XHTML specifications, together with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and the Document Object Model (DOM) are well supported by all the new browsers. By writing code that adheres strictly to these specifications, designers and developers can ensure that their pages will be servicable by all user agents for many years to come.
In theory, users of the older browsers will be forced to upgrade in order to regain the functionality they previously enjoyed. The result is that everyone will benefit. The group who has the most to gain are the users of non-visual browsers. These make up a far greater percentage of potential users than the old guard clinging to their old browsers. Additionally, it will be easier for developers and designers to create pages that will function on mobile devices and Web TV. Because markup will be structured, it will be easier to present to other applications. Search engines will find it easier to index sites and deliver better results to their users.
Time for me to wrap this up. It has turned into a bit of a rant, but that is no bad thing. Any designers or developers out there who are reading this should do the following:
- Learn XHTML 1.1, and 2.0 when it comes out.
- Learn CSS Level 2.1, and 3.0 when it comes out.
- Use them whenever you can.
- Tell your bosses that standards-compliancy is cheaper.
- Also tell them that the greater accessibility will get more clients.
- Preach all of the above to everyone who will listen and more besides.
Thank you for listening. More on this subject can be found everywhere, but most notably at nice places like A List Apart, a site made by people who make good websites and The Web Standards Project, a pressure group determined to get people to adopt new browsers and The World Wide Web Consortium, those nice members who write all the important specifications for the web standards.