Dear one-browser Web designers: Don’t say I didn’t warn you


Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

In my 2002 book, The
Online Rules of Successful Companies
, I said it was stupid to design
Web sites that would work correctly only with the most popular Web
browser. Yes, I told readers, over 90% of all Internet users today may
use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (MSIE), but not long ago 90% of all
Internet users ran Netscape. Web designers and site owners who made
Netscape-only sites had to scramble madly to redo their work when MSIE
started getting popular. “Learn from this!” I said.Now it’s Mozilla and
Mozilla derivatives that are gaining rapidly in popularity, and MSIE
that’s on the downswing. Smart Web designers and site owners work to
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards
and aren’t affected by this shift. But there are still plenty of dumb
ones out there who haven’t figured out that no program or technology
will always dominate the market; that if they want to remain competitive
on the Internet they had better be ready for things to change radically
at a moment’s notice, and to prepare for those changes in advance.

I’m writing this because, while shopping for a mortgage online, I ran
into a SunTrust
Mortgage page
that told me I was using an unsupported browser. The
page said:

Your browser is not compatible with at this time.

If you are using Netscape 6.x, Netscape has chosen to alter their
communication standards resulting in this incompatibility. In the
interim, we recommend you use one of the following browsers:

  • Netscape (4.08 ? 4.77)
  • Internet Explorer (4.0 or higher)
  • AOL (4.0 or higher)

If you are using AOL or Internet Explorer 4.5 on a Macintosh, we
recommend you download and utilize Internet Explorer 5.0 to optimize
your experience on our site.

Instead of taking SunTrust’s advice, I eliminated them from
consideration as a mortgage lender. My income, while not huge, is more
than adequate to cover the mortgage I’m seeking, and I pay my bills on
time so my credit is pretty good. There are hundreds of lenders who
would like my business. If SunTrust doesn’t want me, no problem; I’m
already pre-approved by several other lenders.

Two or three years ago SunTrust’s Web people might have told themselves,
“The extra cost of making a site that works with all browsers is not
justified by the extra business we might get by taking that action. MSIE
has 96% of the browser market. The only people who don’t use it are
Apple fanatics and Linux crackpots, and they probably have rotten credit.”

Today, depending on whose stats you choose to believe, MSIE has slid to
somewhere between 93.7% and 70% of browser usage. Numbers vary wildly by
type of site. Tech-oriented sites and those catering to “early adopters”
show more movement away from MSIE than sites that cater to mainstream
Web users, but the trend is clear. Not only that, many non-MSIE browsers
can pretend they’re MSIE so their users can view MSIE-only sites, like this one for the
Manatee County (Florida) Economic Development Council, and this tends to
skew browser-use statistics in favor of MSIE by an unknown amount.

(I find the MSIE-only site example above especially sad because I live
in Manatee
. I am not, however, a Chamber of Commerce or Economic
Development Council member, nor am I likely to become one as long the
group maintains its browser-bigot attitude.)

Preparing for the Internet’s future

The point here isn’t that MSIE is bad and other browsers are good, but
that there are many browsers out there, and it’s almost impossible to
predict which one will dominate in three or four years — or whether any
of the current ones will dominate. For all we know, someone in
China or Brazil is secretly working on a revolutionary Web browser that
will be faster, more flexible, and more secure than those that are in common
use, today.

In the end, the only “standards” likely to stay with us are those set by
worldwide, non-corporate bodies like the W3C and the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force).
Forward-looking Web designers and Internet business people already know
this, but not everyone has enough foresight to look at trends like
shifts in browser usage patterns, then look beyond the immediate trends
and say, “The true lesson here is that I shouldn’t be preparing for
increased use of one browser or another, but that I should make my work
usable through all standards-compliant browsers.”

I have had several companies pay me $1,000+ per day to tell them this and
give them other basic advice about what does and doesn’t work — in a
business sense — on the Internet. I’m under NDA so I can’t say which
ones, but I assure you the companies that paid me have taken my advice
and have Web sites that work well with all current browsers and are
likely to work well with most future ones for at least the next four or
five years.

I’m giving you this same advice for free, not because you need it
yourself, but because it might help you talk a boss or colleague into
making Web sites that are open to all browsers and operating systems —
and, therefore, are more likely to accomplish their missions than those
that are only fully usable by people who run a particular browser,
whether that browser is MSIE, Opera, Konqueror, Safari, Lynx, Mozilla,
Firefox, or one of the many others out there that don’t have huge market
shares but have their own, devoted followings.