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Oh Just Die Already

August 18, 2003

On Netscape Navigator 4.x and the Zen Garden

A reader asks:

I was looking at the (beautiful) designs in the Zen Garden a moment ago and thought I’d throw Netscape Navigator 4.8 at them. Nothing! (So far as I can tell) The textual content was all there, of course, but not an iota of style.

Is there any prospect of getting a version of the Zen Garden page to ‘inline’ the styles so we can see how ‘backwards compatible’ they are?

(I have sites where a significant number of the visitors are locked in to NN4 and other old browsers…)

A responsible designer considers his/her audience. If a big chunk of your users run older browsers, you’d better make sure you’re giving them something to look at.

In the case of the Zen Garden, @import prevents NN4 from trying anything foolish. It thinks it knows CSS, but it just can’t keep up. So I (unabashedly, and unapologetically) serve up an unformatted XHTML document to NN4.

Well, I happened to have the Garden files loaded in front of me when that e-mail came in, and wouldn’t you know, I got curious myself.

Here’s what you do: load a design, any design. In the URL, you’ll see ‘cssfile=/0xx/0xx.css’ plus some other junk. Change ‘cssfile’ to ‘nn4’, and the style will then be pulled by a <link> as well as an @import.

It’s not pretty. You’ll notice some of the designs won’t even start to apply themselves - NN4 chokes on the Box Model Hack, so its CSS engine seems to die when it encounters an instance of it. Don’t even bother trying any of this in a standard-compliant browser, it’ll load the same stylesheet twice and really make a mess of things.

I’m always sorry to hear about anyone stuck supporting this relic; sometimes I’m forced to as well. As Zeldman points out in DWWS, transitional layouts are still very necessary in real-world situations. Netscape Navigator 4.x is Mostly Dead, but if we learned anything from the Princess Bride, it’s that Mostly Dead also means Partly Alive.

Despite mainstream sites and their continued misguided efforts at being ‘backward-compatible’, the consolation is that NN4 usage is at all-time lows and rapidly fading. According to Upsdell, current usage is hovering around 1% and shrinking, down from 3% a year ago. If that’s not insignificant, I don’t know what is.

Reader Comments

August 18, 01h

I wonder…

- Do clients that expect their web site to appear the same in NN4 as it does in Mozilla also expect their TV ads to look as good on my Grandpa’s 13” black and white as it does on my 42” plasma?

- Do these clients also expect their jingles to sound as good on mono AM radio as they do on their FM brethern?

(No, I don’t really have a plasma. Damn it.)

Jai says:
August 18, 01h

Jeff… that was beautiful. Let’s get out the 8-track and celibrate disco-style!

NN4 is the son of Mordor.

August 18, 02h

Jeff, as much as I really like your analogy, there are pervasive reasons that drive folks to expect wonderful things to come out of this browser. The main issue is that designers can make a site look good while catering to this low-low denominator. I guess that if I tried hard enough, I could even design a nice webpage through the use of spacer gifs and the like. Heck, back in ‘98 my site used a css-based layout and looked pretty good in ol’ NN4.

Another analogy (only an analogy, not trying to invite flames) might be to liken the old browser issue to the use of environmentally friendly materials and methods in architecture and building.

Sure, you can build a fabulous hose with a stick-built frame, plywood, pressure treated lumber, petrol-based carpeting and vinyl siding. But how does that building fit in with its environment (ecology and climate)?

The old building codes aren’t compatiable with all the new technologies emerging in this field. And the people who are developing these technologies are always wrestling with local governments when trying to get building permits.

Likewise, how are design methods that were in use in 1997 going to fare in today’s information environment?

Sure the website might look great in NN4, but we need to carry around one those new Sony CLIE’s or Handspring Treo’s to show how badly such a layout breaks in it’s browser.

I think that once people are given a clear either-or choice between one method or another, they’ll go with the more forward-thinking approach - especially if their values are in line with what the future holds.

I suppose that this has always been the struggle of progres, however.

MikeyC says:
August 18, 02h

“It’s amazingly hard working with some clients who just expect to get the exact same experience across all browsers, whether they were built in 1997 or just last year.”

I don’t think all the blame for this can fall in the client’s lap as they have simply been trained to think a certain way as most web design firms are quite happy to give the client whatever they want, without question, as they can bill them for more hours of development time. I think at least some of the blame for the “pixel-perfect mindset” that many clients have is the fault of unscrupulous design firms who have been promising them that since the mid-nineties.

Why would a client think that web design isn’t print design when all the evidence (many sites out there) they see points to the contrary? I think $$$ is the answer. You have to “sell” web standards to a client by giving them two prices: “tag-soup price” and “webstandards price” and then asking them if providing Netscape 4 users with an identical layout is worth the extra money. This does take balls and you have to be willing to lose a few potential clients I guess…

Lea says:
August 18, 03h

I find it interesting that clients even care to know HOW you do it: Standards or not. In my experience, they have no clue what the hell you’re doing they just know you did something and it does what they want it to do. I’ve always coded as standards compliant as possible, and didn’t have to “educate” the client or even mention what I was doing. All they care about it is works and looks pretty. Whenever I do mention standards, I don’t even have to explain too much. They trust my judgement. That’s what they hired me for. They expect I know my stuff so they don’t worry about details.

MikeyC says:
August 18, 03h

“I’ve always coded as standards compliant as possible, and didn’t have to “educate” the client or even mention what I was doing. All they care about it is works and looks pretty.”

I guess you have never run into a situation when using the ‘standards’ has had adverse effects in real-world browsers like Netscape 4.

Lea says:
August 18, 03h

Clients don’t care when the oldest browser they use is IE5 or IE5.5 :P

August 18, 06h

Jai - Thanks. :)

Kevin - Good points. Still, I think an analogy like those I used could make a bit of a point to a client who isn’t understanding why standards-compliant sites look different in NN4 than they do in MSIE 6. They need to understand that the reason you want to use standards is so you can incorporate great design features that 90+% of the visitors will see. It’s not for nothing. An explanation like this might prove sucessful:

“Compare it to a TV ad. When you make a TV ad, you do so with the thought that most of your viewers will be using nice, relativley new color TVs with decent audio systems. Thus, you use bright color, fine text detail, and music to capture their attention. There is a small percentage of people who will see these ads on black and white TVs, using rabbit ears for reception, and with a single tiny speaker for your music. This guy obviously isn’t going to get the full experience of your ad, but the core content is there – he’ll get your point. Plus, he’s used to seeing ads at less-than-perfect fidelity, so you won’t look bad, relative to your competition.

Choosing to design your site so that it looks identical in Netscape 4 as it does in modern browsers would be the equivalent of making your TV ad in black and in mono sound, since there are a couple of people who will see it that way, anyhow. Catering to the lowest common denominator is an admirable concept – but it doesn’t make sense when that denominator only encompasses 1% of your audience.”


Marc says:
August 18, 07h

This is a problem i battle with daily.
Each of you have made very good points in all areas.

I am a little suprised that everyone can be so naive as to think that the 1% is a fair and true representation of the audience that views your site.

Case in point. 1 percent is only one percent when you look at it in context of the ENTIRE world of online users.
(granted everyone has the potential to be your audience)
But when you get a client come to you with a very specific user group - you may as well throw the damn 1% rule out the window - it’s foolish.

To use that as a fair reflection on the entire industry would be futile. In my country, we have one of the highest (if not the highest from memory) internet connections per head. Yet the target audience we primarily cover - present an entirely different different percentage. We range from 15 - 40 percent in extreme cases, using a 4.x netscape.

Presenting a client something that wont work (or looks substantially different) on that percentage is dangerous.

Trying to get programmers to unlearn how they create pages for me the designer is a dead end. Trying to convince higher ups that this is the way to go, is even worse.Dont get me started on clients. They dont care. why should they ? Heres your money. Make it work.

August 18, 07h


Trust me, I know. I already mentioned I work at a University where the percentage of Netscape 4.7 users is over 60%.

Still, as designers, we have a responsibility to move the web forward. I did my part. How? I designed sites at the University that worked in Netscape 4.7x, but sparkled in Netscape 7 or similar. Now, the sysadmins are in the process of migrating our users to NS7.

Clearly, every design project is different. Every audience is different and every demographic is different. That doesn’t change the fact that those who are clinging to NN4 are using SIX year old technology, which we all know is a lifetime in Internet years. We can’t cater to them forever.

At every juncture, I’ll be trying to convince my clients that it’s time to move on – making websites that WORK in NN4, but sparkle in modern browsers. They won’t bite everytime, but each time they do is a success for us designers – it’s worth trying.


Kevin Davis says:
August 18, 10h

Jeff - The quote works for me :) I might try a similar approach the next time I do a small contract for someone - rather than trying to explain web accessiblity and such.

Marc - I can echo Jeff’s statements. We all have ideals regarding web design. Aside from this, I still stand behind hybrid layouts.

Utilizing these new technologies in large sites like wired news or (and giving netscape 4 users a text page) is an important, yet radical step.

However, this can’t be done for every audience. I think that the pragmatic approach of building hybrid layouts is also very important in pushing the full adoption of these technologies. Moderation is certainly all right.

In your case, I think that giving netscape 4x users the basic design is all you would need to do. Produce a tables/based layout, then use what css elements netscape supports by way of the link tag, then add a layer of refinement to the design using css by way of the @import method. From my experience, most netscape users don’t see a broken design by any account, but if they view the site in a newer browser, it simply looks more attractive - which can be an incentive to upgrade, but not an outright coersion to upgrade.

August 18, 12h

At the University I work at, many user still make regular use of that damned jurrasic browser.

While this is Mostly Sucky, the nice part of it (for me) is that these users have also become acustomed to seeing ugly, broken, and/or barley-styled pages.

I’d adopted the custom of creating a very basic stylesheet (usually with a few font definitions, colors, and that’s about it), as well as an advanced stylesheet that makes use of positioning and other elements NN4 can’t even begin to render. I think LINK to the basic.css, and @import the advanced.css, and I get a page that makes just about everyone happy.

Unless, of course, it’s a page about the recent rise in tuition rates.

Nic says:
August 18, 12h

Very sad that NN4 can’t see the design, but if the content gets delivered, in the end, that’s what’s important, i think. Usable, readable content.

Of course, I’ve had this interaction with Dave in the past, where I explained I wasn’t so much for design as a means to an end, but as a means to make the content a little sweeter. I’m not a designer, so this view might be disliked here ;-)

As Dave points out, 1% is insignificant. OTOH, I’m fond of quoting a friend by saying that “A community that excludes even one of its members is no community at all”. We then have to consider, is it exclusion?

If the 1% using NN4 receives the content, but not the styling, and content is the important part, then I’d venture to say it’s not a problem. If you’re looking at a site where design is there only for design’s sake, then I’d venture to say that NN4 users are indeed excluded.

Hmmmm, I vote for content delivery, before design myself. :-)

Dave S. says:
August 18, 12h

Nic - precisely. It’s amazingly hard working with some clients who just expect to get the exact same experience across all browsers, whether they were built in 1997 or just last year. This is a large part of why NN4 persists - people still cater to it.

As Jeff points out though, users of it are getting used to seeing unstyled pages. As long as the content gets across, NN4 doesn’t deserve my style.

David B says:
August 19, 02h

I have worked in a UK University which decided to end the use of NN4. You wouldn’t believe how much of a struggle it was to pull this piece of software way from our lecturers and support staff. They had become so fond of it that they wouldn’t even consider using something else (such as IE6). Than heavens for SMS… we replaced every copy of NN4 over 1 week on 1000 computers. We then took our phones off the hook and let our IT trainer handle to fallout!

Amazingly, when I look at our web-server logs, we are still getting hits from IE2 browsers. There will always be users out there who just refuse to come into the 21st century and use new software… their cry: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Our web-site now runs with XHTML 1.0 Strict and CCS 2.0 so they don’t have much choice now.

BTW: Nice analogy Jeff

kami says:
August 19, 02h

I work in the Computer/Networking support (for faculty/staff) at a small private university.

In fact, I started last September, when they kept giving me toy jobs until they found out I wasn’t a moron.

Anyway–I believe it was the second week–I was supposed to set up a new XP box from a RIS server (you plug it into the network and install it!). After the install, I noticed something absolutely horrifying. I called my boss over.

“Is this Netscape 4?”

The good news is, they got a whiff of Mozilla. (Unfortunately, they ‘standardized’ on 1.3.1–I got in serious trouble for letting 20 new boxen out with 1.4 out.) Doubly unfortunately, I’ve discovered the cause of the inertia: the users are morons. Nay, incredible morons.

“What’s this Dinosaur thing?”
“That’s Mozilla.”
“What’s Mozilla?”
“It’s”–[Explains the AOL-Microsoft-Netscape thing for ten seconds, gets blank stare.] “It’s the new Netscape.”
“Yeah, plus it has spam-filtering and pop up blocking.”
“I want to use *that* then.”
[Having learned my lesson previously, I set up all of the options for Mozilla 1.3.1 that are on by default in 1.4 so I don’t have to explain every fscking little thing for 20 minutes.] *Clickety*, *clickety*, *point-clickety*. “There, it’s set up.”
“Okay. So where’s my e-mail?”
“You go to Window->Mail & Newsgroups.”
“That’s not how I used to go to it.”
“Er, okay, how did you do it before?”
“Start, Programs…”
“Yeah, it’s under Mozilla, then Mail.”
“Oh, I see!”
“Yeah. Even better, though, you can just hit Control-2.”
“OOOoooooooo….. So how did you do that?”
[Internally screaming: ******* don’t you ******* get this ******* ****??!!?!! I bet you drive your ******* car with the ******* oil light on for days too, ‘cause you don’t understand it!] “Never mind.”
“Okay. Now I want to set up this digital camera that I got…”

Maybe we can get them switched to the old, buggy version of Mozilla in two years. :(

MikeyC says:
August 19, 08h

“Amazingly, when I look at our web-server logs, we are still getting hits from IE2 browsers.”

I’m a bit doubtful of that. I think its more likely that you are misidentifying Web-TV as IE2 as older versions identify themselves as:

Mozilla/3.0 WebTV/1.2 (compatible; MSIE 2.0)

The idea that anyone is still running IE 2 (nostalgia aside) is kind of baffling to me. I can only imagine that surfing most modern sites with it would be almost intolerable. I still use Netscape 2 and NCSA Mosaic from time to time just for kicks and it’s almost intolerable. You get all kinds of scripting errors thrown at you because no one does object detection anymore and half the time the browser will crash before the page is done loading if it’s filled with nested tables.

Sites that use CSS layouts fair much better of course as the layout is simply ignored. Perhaps there will be a new renaissance for ancient browsers as more sites adopt CSS ;)

August 19, 08h

> There will always be users out there who
> just refuse to come into the 21st century
> and use new software… their cry: “If it
> ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

I doubt that user attitude is a main cause of obsolete browser usage. I expect most of those users are individuals or schools with ancient hand-me-down computers, and without the resources to upgrade their systems or buy new ones. They are also corporate and government users waiting for IT departments to find enough benefit in newer software to justify the cost and hassle of an change.

I agree, of course, that for most sites it is best to insure that content is available to all users, and styles to those users whose software is capable enough. We could be creating much better and more forward-compatible sites with much less work, if we didn’t waste half our time on inefficient code and hacks designed for a dwindling population of obsolete clients.

Clients would care about standards if they realized how much money they could save (both now and in future maintainence) by having a site built with modern techniques for standards-compliant browsers.

Sunny says:
August 19, 08h

IE 2?! You are joking right?

I think the 1% stat can be misleading. I am currently re-designing the business site of my uncle. Although I would love to do css layouts for the site, I am limited to transitional layouts because of where he does most of his business – Africa and South America (he exports medical disposables). He has travelled extensively there and tells me, that most of his clients use IE5 and <NN7.

I suppose it just depends on your potential audience. Just providing the content for my uncle’s clients won’t just cut it.

August 19, 12h

I got to thinking…In most cases, which is greater:

1. The percentage of visitors using NN4 or another similarly prehistoric agent.


2. The percentage of users who would gain from the greater accessibility of standards-compliant sites (because they are disabled, using mobile devices, using text browsers, etc).

I don’t know the answer. I’m sure it’s different from project to project. But, it’s a question worth asking, I think.

Lea says:
August 20, 08h

Anyone ever consider that your tracker could have made a mistake? IE2 is just ridiculous. Also, consider that it IS possible to make it seem like you surfed from another, even “made-up” browser like Dave found out a few weeks ago (i’m too lazy to fish out the entry).

marc says:
August 21, 02h

You guys think ie 2 is bad!

From out tracking, (a site bfore my time at the company, but still active) we have recorded the following :

Netscape 3 has a higher percentage than netscape 4 with 5.25 and 3.21 percent respectively. Ie2 and 3 both rank similarly.

Operating systems : Although these dont receive any number of hits even worth considering - its great for a laugh

amiga and acorn both have 1% … who on this good planet would hook either up to the internet??!?!?

August 21, 02h

Nope… it was definately IE2… clear as day… running on a Windows NT4 Machine (Our stats software can pick up the difference between a version of IE and WebTV). I nearly fainted when I saw it! My guess is that someone had installed NT4/IE2 on an old machine to use it as a test suite.

Tim says:
August 22, 01h

I thought it was odd when one of our sites went from 11% to 23% NN4 usage in the space of a year. Digging around, it turned out that it was Zyborg and some other web bot that had “NN4-compatible” query strings. We’ve now changed how Nettracker (our log analyser app) treats these; hopefully we’ll now see the real NN4 figure and design accordingly…

Eric says:
August 28, 02h

Jeff, I think I can give you a semblance of an answer to your question. The answer is #2. Why? Because 100% of people fall into that category. I don’t mean to be a wiseass, but the key word is “would.”

At some point in our lives, we will all effectively be disabled, be it by a permanent method such as blindness or failing eyesight, or any number of temporary methods such as a broken hand, eye infection. Consider that tomorrow you might find yourself not being 100% capable of doing what you can do today.

If that is a little too idealist answer, consider the fact that the number of people in #1 is decreasing, while the number of people in #2 is increasing. If the numbers are close now, which I believe they are, then you are better off going with the up-and-comer.