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Weblog Entry

The New Browser Wars

May 17, 2003

Roll call.

The above two links will take you to some interesting numbers, although nothing you haven’t seen before. IE has enjoyed a majority position in the browser market for what’s going on 3 years now, and the new wave of standards–compliant browsers are barely making a scratch.

Is this really much of a surprise to anyone? Let’s think about how Microsoft pulled this off: IE came bundled with Windows so that your new computer had a browser right from the get–go. The more technologically advanced of us had the option of upgrading, but we will always be a small minority. The path of least resistance in getting on the internet was and is to use the default browser, which is exactly why Microsoft won the last round, and why IE isn’t going anywhere.

And we shouldn’t forget about how many of us were cheering them on back then, too. What was the alternative? The oft–derided Netscape Navigator 4, which was obsolete almost as soon as it was released. Then it hung on like a bad head cold, years after anyone in their right mind could believe it. Even today traces of its odour still linger like recently disposed fish gut.

So we’ve come full circle. We were ecstatic to see something better than NN4 replace it, now we’re beginning to hope against hope that something will replace its replacement. “IE is the new NN4.” I’ve heard it more than once.

Given the great new browsers in the past year from the Mozilla project, Apple, and Opera, we are finally getting the standards support we’ve been aching for; but is it doing us any good at all if the rest of the world ignores them? We’re trying to hit a moving target, and they ain’t cooperating.

What’s it going to take to move to the next level? Short of a revolutionary change in technology or mindset, not only are we stuck with the most popular browser vendor dragging its heels on a new release, but we’re also faced with a user base that sees no reason to upgrade. The WaSP’s recent Browser Upgrade Campaign was an unqualified success in eliminating the remaining few percentage of NN4 users, but will they have to start it up all over again once we see IE7?

Tantek Çelik posts that MSN for OS X came out Thursday with a huge update to the Mac IE5 rendering engine, Tasman. That’s a glimmer of hope that something might be around the corner from Redmond for IE itself, but will even that be enough? What if no one upgrades?

This is why I find it hard to salivate over the new offerings of CSS–3, and why I can’t be bothered to care about the tiny or major differences between XHTML 2.0 and 1.1. We’re not going to be in a position to actually use either of those for a very long time yet.

It’s great to have new browser releases to keep the market fresh; it proves that there’s hope for the future. But for right now? There’s no point in lamenting the most esoteric CSS–2 selectors won’t work in any browser but Mozilla. Instead I’m going to take the training wheels off my XHTML 1.1 and CSS–1 and see how far I can go with the tools I have now. Come along for the ride, it’ll be more fun.

Reader Comments

Allen says:
May 17, 07h

I, too, have been feeling that way lately – time to drop the training wheels and hope for the best. I’m sick of writing code that I know is obsolete just because the majority of the Internet users don’t know what they’re doing (or what they’re missing). Glad to see that someone whose opinion is qualified feels the same way. I’m squeaking along right behind you.

Jemaleddin says:
May 18, 02h

That’s all well and good for blogs and personal sites - but I think the days of “Best viewed with…” are long gone. How do you tell a client that you want to design for 2% of the browsers out there and leave everyone else hanging?

Maybe I’m just extra sensitive to this issue because where I work 65% of the users on my intranet are using Netscape 4 (and half of those are using a version of Solaris for which no better browser exists). Sometimes designing to the spec just ain’t enough. Yes, I validate, but it’s getting harder and harder to convince myself that it’s worth it when I spend hours figuring out that “margin: -8px” is a valid way of expressing “leftmargin=0…” in Netscape while my coworkers write tag soup and nobody’s the wiser.

Mike says:
May 18, 08h

I’ve decided that NN4 can go hang - somedays I feel the same about IE6 as well, when I spend a day working up code using Camino and then discover that IE6 mangles it by introduces extra margins, or deciding that paragraph margins aren’t necessary, &c. It’s not so bad, but I wish it would “just work”, like coding for Moz seems to.

My other big beef is PNG support, which I feel is really holding us back (would be great for the garden!) I feel bad for you if you must code for NN4, I’d hate to go back to using tables myself.

Dave S. says:
May 18, 09h

Jemal - you design for your audience, of course, and if you know that half of your users are still to this day running NN4, it’s an exercise in masochism to drop tables. In a more general, internet-wide sense though, those supporting that far back are pretty much making a ‘last stand’, given how much more you can do once you drop it.

Alternatively, if you’re itching to work on your CSS skills while waiting for these guys to get a clue and upgrade their browser/OS, there’s no shame in transitional layouts. I’ve actually put together a few CSS-only layouts that shift a little bit in NN4 (background images get stuck in the top left corner, rather than bottom right, so I change my image accordingly, for example) that seem to turn out okay, but I’ve also thrown together sites with one or two main tables that degrade pretty gracefully.

In the grand scheme of things though, it’s almost pointless to do that anymore for most regular sites. You don’t code for 2% of the population and leave everyone else hanging, which is precisely why NN4 shouldn’t be catered to anymore. You’re missing out on providing the best possible experience for the majority of the population. IE5/IE6 is at ~93%, Mozilla can be anywhere from 2 to 5% depending on your audience (mine is around 33%, but my traffic is far from an accurate indicator of the regular user), and NN4 is 1% or less. It’s safe to say that CSS-based design is a preferable alternative today. Faster download times, easier maintenance, and all the other reasons for using it are something to embrace, not avoid.

Dave S. says:
May 18, 09h

Mike, you’re killing yourself if you design in a Mozilla browser and then test in IE. I do all my testing in IE first, then make appropriate changes to accomodate Mozilla afterward. It’s almost always far easier to make fixes in Mozilla, because you usually know exactly why an element is out of place. “Oh, my text-align: right; moved that DIV over in IE, but it’s still flush left in Mozilla. Of course, Mozilla only applies text-align to text. Adjust the margins annnd… there. Fixed.”

PNG support would be nice, agreed. But for the time being I’m making due. Creative use of GIF transparency (making sure to dither to the proper matte colour naturally) and precise placement of JPG background images can usually accomplish the same opacity effects that PNG offers, even if they’re somewhat faked. It feels like a hack, but at least it works.

Incidentally, have you seen this story on ALA? It’s too much work for me to have used seriously yet, but it’s a possible way out for you.

Mike says:
May 18, 12h

Mike, you’re killing yourself if you design in a Mozilla browser and then test in IE. I do all my testing in IE first, then make appropriate changes to accomodate Mozilla afterward.

Well, I work on a Mac, so… IE Mac was OK two years ago but Moz based browsers like Camino are the way to go now - and IE Mac behaves quite differently from IE 6 anyway. I generally look at pages in Virtual PC to get a sense of how they’ll look, but it’s no way to work. As an aside, apparently MS has incorporated some new code into their new MSN Mac client, so perhaps we’ll see some improvements to IE Mac finally.

I’ve basically incorporated most of the bad IE bugs into my work habits now too - for example paragraphs get padded instead of their parent divs. As well, I try to leave things as flexible as possible to accomodate those mysterious extra pixels that IE likes to put in occasionally.

re: PNG article - yes I have seen that one and I agree, it’s a little too much work with too many caveats. Another link is PNG Behaviour, a free set-up for using PNGs in your HTML documents, which is considerably easier to use - but doesn’t fix background images.

Seamus says:
May 25, 06h

For the past year I have started pushing my designs so that they just start to break in IE6 in hope to show IE’s flaws.

I also think we need to educate the “pop based” websites about true CSS and XHTML. If we can convince them to upgrade and show them the neat stuff that may have a big impacted in an a new area.