Browser Stuff

Again prompted by David Fletcher, I’ve been looking this morning at a posting on the Apple website that focuses on web design and mostly about CSS. One of the biggest frustrations in developing online apps for government has been the need to support a vast range of browsers. Many commercial entities can just say “works best in IE 6 or Netscape 6.x” and go from there, living with the inconsistencies between browsers … as Apple says

Although the standards are not yet fully supported by all browsers in all circumstances, creating standards-compatible pages is the best way to ensure good rendering. As always, learning to use new technologies will take some time and will give you some incompatibility headaches. Nonetheless the results will be well worth the investment.

The public sector though faces the need to support many browser versions across many operating systems, despite relatively low usage for everything other than IE. For instance, looking at December traffic on one key government website:

Over 96% of traffic was from Windows PCs, but: 41% was XP, 20% was Win 98, 20% was Win 2000, 7% was Win ME, 6% was Win NT, 2% was Win 95 and .2% was Win CE (that won’t add up to 100%, there were some others in there, including something called Windows 32 and I have no idea what that is).

The total count of different browsers that accessed the site breaks down like this:

Linux: 3 browsers, 0.01% to 0.13% of total
Mac: 3 browsers, 0.02% to 0.71%
Motorola: 1, 0.01% (someone using wap to access the site!)
Windows: 5 browsers, 0.16% to 89.9%

And then there’s Nokia, Siemens, OS2 (does that still exist?), SonyEricsson, Unix and a small amount of unknowns.

And, in version terms, a small number of IE 3 users, quite a few IE 4, 26% IE 5 and 65% IE 6; likewise, Netscape 3,4,5 and 6 are all in use; and 3 versions of the AOL browser. In the “other” category – what I usually call my “n squared” problem (a big, ugly, complicated matrix) are things like: blackberry, knowqueror, lotus notes, icab (?), opera, lynx and even webtv.

The site has to work well for all of those browsers … text has to position correctly, fonts must render exactly, accessibility features must work and so on. That’s a tough challenge – how many commercial sites do you think work well for such a variety? The ROI falls off very, very steeply once you go past IE 5 and 6 / Netscape 5 and 6 … but if it doesn’t work [well] on one browser and that impacts someone’s ability to access government information, I don’t think we’d get very far if we suggested that they upgrade to a more current version. The browser inconsistencies are also one of the reasons that digital certificates didn’t work well.

The Apple article talks a lot about CSS and how hard it can be to get right, but how worthwhile it is. I agree with that – we use it on our platform and by doing it once (at the centre of government), anyone that uses our platform gets to take advantage of all of that work that we’ve already done. So they can forget about the technology and the testing and compatibility issues and get on with publishing high quality, focused content. Much smarter and, to use a current word, efficient.

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