Is Your Website Viewable with Any Browser?

Browsers
Designing for all browsers can be tricky and maybe even impossible, but with a little work and a lot of testing, you can make sure your site is accessible, usable, and visually appealing to as many people as possible.

The days of Microsoft Internet Explorer's complete domination over the browser market are over. Although it still holds an edge over many browsers, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, and Google Chrome have all made dents in Microsoft's once solid empire, conquered after the demise of Netscape Navigator.

When Firefox began to take root, web developers were shocked by how poor their coding had become, as they often wrote to IE6 specifications, even though they often did not meet web standards. This resulted in websites that did not look the same in Firefox. As many web designers began to make sites that were standards compliant, the problem became Internet Explorer.

Later versions of IE (7 and 8) have improved, and version 9 is expected to improve further, but the web has changed significantly in the past decade. Web browsers are no longer restricted to desktop and notebook computers. Users now access the web from mobile phones, video game consoles, and tablets. And while most of those devices use rendering engines based on Gecko (Firefox), Webkit (Safari and Chrome) or Opera, the size and supported (or not supported) third-party plugins on those devices add a new dimension that web developers must consider. I would like to thank the UK server hosting company 34sp.com for their input on this article.

Web Standards

To the casual observer, the web may seem like a lawless land where anyone can make a website do whatever he wants, but the reality is that there are standards in place to help site designers make sure their sites work. No one will enforce the standards, but making a site that does not follow them is a good way to alienate some or even most of your site's visitors.

The standards for HTML, CSS, and accessibility are published by the World Wide Web Consortium. A website that is valid HTML or XHTML will be more likely to work in the majority of browsers, although it is no guarantee.

1. XHTML support

All browsers support XHTML code and should display it correctly. You should still test as many browsers as possible, just to be sure.

2. CSS support

Not all browsers support all CSS2 standards, but the latest versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome, and Opera should all view it correctly. For CSS3 functionality, you will have to evaluate browsers on a per-selector basis. None of them have implemented all features, but they are all moving toward adoption gradually.

3. Javascript

Browsers should all have javascript support, but their implementation of javascript features may vary slightly. Furthermore, some functions will be much faster in some browsers versus others. The only way to be sure your Javascript code will work well is to test it.

4. Future Features

Because the browser market has become more competitive, most browser developers are working to implement current standards and also future ones, like HTML 5. The hot topic right now is HTML 5 video, which has still not settled on a standard video codec.

Mozilla and Opera area adamant about only supporting open codecs like Ogg Theora or Google's WebM. Google initially had support in Chrome for both Theora and the patent-laced H.264. With their new WebM codec, they may eventually drop support for the others. Apple, however, only supports H.264 and has convinced some commercial sites to code specifically to their specifications for the iPad, iPod Touch, and iPhone. With the future uncertain, it is best to not use any HTML 5 features unless you know they are supported in all current browers, and, even then, you should have a backup alternative choice for users with older browsers.

5. Backwards compatibility

Unfortunately, there are still users in businesses and homes with older computers. Some of them may run older versions of Internet Explorer, Netscape, and other browsers. Therefore, you should write code that can still at least provide basic functionality, if not perfect rendering, on those older browsers.

6. Accessibility

There are standards for accessibility, and many countries, like the United States, have laws in place that require websites to be accessible to people with visual impairment, hearing impairment, and other disabilities. The W3C lists accessibility standards, which may be higher than federal regulations. The laws are not currently enforced, but your company could still be sued for having an inaccessible site. Furthermore, it is simply common courtesy and good business practice to not exclude anyone.

Plugins

Third-party plugins are allowed by standards, but the content itself may not be as accessible. Adobe Flash player, for example, will not have real valid text, making links and words invisible to screen readers and search engines. Furthermore, Flash-based sites tend to load more slowly and not be scalable to the size of the user's screen. Flash may be the only solution for some tools like streaming video, but web developers should avoid using it for entire sites, menu navigation, or other crucial features. The same is true for Java and other third-party plugins. For devices like the iPad, iPhone, and some other mobile phones, Flash is not supported at all.

The Great Task

Designing for all browsers can be tricky and maybe even impossible, but with a little work and a lot of testing, you can make sure your site is accessible, usable, and visually appealing to as many people as possible.

This is a guest post by Tavis J. Hampton - a librarian and writer with a decade of experience in information technology, web hosting, and Linux system administration. He currently works for LanternTorch.Net, which offers writing, editing, tech training, and information architecture services.

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