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Choosing the wrong web browser

BrowsersThe first browser wars ended years ago and now it seems they are back for a second round. I don’t think they will ever match the Netscape vs. Internet Explorer days, and today there are many more platforms to consider. Before reading this post further, I should mention that I am a web designer / developer and I have an axe to grind with Microsoft, especially when it comes to their browser. I will actually be completely blunt and say that this browser is downright horrible and the only reason it has any market share at all is because it is included with practically every mainstream computer sold on the planet. The very fact that Firefox has gained so much ground over the past three years against such incredible odds is testament not only to how great Firefox is, but also to how horrible Internet Explorer is.

Let’s talk about web standards, even though most people probably don’t give a damn about them, you should because they affect you and here’s why. Years ago I made a really dumb comment (not the first time, and probably not the last). I remember looking at web pages with malformed tables which Netscape rendered as blank, while IE rendered the content fine. Someone told me that there was an error in the table and this was why Netscape would not render the content properly. I replied by saying this was stupid, and at the end of the day all I or anyone else for that matter cared about was if we could see the content. Netscape later started rendering broken tables like IE, but my comment was very dumb.

If something is broken, it should not work. Making it work is taking a leap of faith and hoping it will display the way the developer / designer intended. If browsers were strict and only rendered proper code then we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today. The developer / designer would immediately see their mistake and fix it, thus avoiding cross platform issues we have today. Now his page should work across the board in any standards compliant browser without further testing, although testing is always recommended.

This is even more important in today’s rapidly changing Internet. We are beginning to access the web in many different ways, and this is only going to accelerate with time. As Wi-Fi signals get stronger, and cell phone bandwidth gets cheaper we will see more and more people accessing the web through hand held devices like the Blackberry and iPhone. We need to conform to web standards more than ever. Do you want your favourite website to work in Internet Explorer at home but not on your iPhone while you ride transit to work, or when sipping coffee at Starbucks? When sites use proprietary non-compliant IE garbage like active x, not only do they close many avenues, but they also leave themselves at the mercy of Microsoft’s security bugs and extremely slow development time. Look at how long it took for Internet Explorer 7 to come out and add features that had already existed in other browsers for years. It took 6 years, that’s an eternity in web years. Microsoft rarely releases updates for IE unless they are major security fixes. Internet Explorer 7 has also brought along a huge list of old bugs and new bugs.

There are so many other reasons why non-standard mark-up and code like ActiveX are bad, but most of them seem like self serving rants to the average Joe. Developers generally have to spend more time, more money, and more effort to get things to work in IE. So what you say, that’s your job. Well, this costs time and money for companies, and most of all it costs innovation. Instead of moving the web forward and adding the newest and greatest technologies, developers are saddled spending their time trying to make things work in IE. There is no doubt in my mind that Internet Explorer has stagnated and held back web innovation and development.

So which browser do you pick? Well, sometimes it’s not a choice as with hand held’s and game consoles, but almost anything is better than Internet Explorer. Firefox is a favourite of developers, and the most used non-Microsoft browser at the time of this writing. Other rising stars are Opera and Safari. Opera has been around for years and many swear by it as their browser of choice. Nintendo’s Wii and DSLite also use Opera. Then there’s Safari, this is a Mac browser, but it is also the browser in the iTouch and iPhone. If the iTouch and iPhone really take off expect to see Safari usage stats go up too. You can also now get Safari for Windows.

In general I don’t really want one browser to ever dominate. That’s what Internet Explorer did for 6 years, and for 6 years the web lurched forward with hacks and tacked on functionality to make IE work. When IE first released Internet Explorer 4 it really was better than Netscape 4, but after they won the browser wars they never seemed to take their browser seriously anymore. Having many browsers to choose from keeps companies and developers on their toes, so pick the browser you like most, even if it is IE, but don’t ever pick IE just because it came with your computer. You will be missing out. Almost everything in Internet Explorer 7 has been around for years in other browsers and is just copied. IE is playing catch-up right now, and it’s still in last place.

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