Friday, 4 January 2008

Keeping Up Appearances

5.25 inch floppy disk
If I told you that I listen to all of my music on cassette tape you would probably laugh at me. Similarly, if I told you that my portable file storage format is a packet of 5.25” floppy disks (you remember the big black ones?), you would no doubt label me an eccentric and probably shield me from any by-standing children in case my disease was contagious.

If you are using Internet Explorer 6, Netscape 8, Firefox 1, Opera 8.5, Safari 2 or any versions before them, then you’re among approximately 35% of the internet population using outdated browsers (according to w3schools.com stats of Dec 2007). If you have you screen resolution set to 800x600 pixels or less you are one of around 17% of internet users operating below the standard screen size.

As with the cassette tapes and floppy disks, there may be a time and place for each of them (it’s hard to see where, but I’ll allow that there may be some situations), however the vast majority of the world has moved forward, and as a general rule it is accepted that both of these formats have been superseded by far superior alternatives.

The issues of browser type and screen resolution are the 2 most frustrating aspects of the internet to any web design and development studio, large or small. These areas are the most significant contributors to the internet being unable to move forward at the speed of innovation and technology – and in most cases, it doesn’t need to be the case. Many older browsers (such as Internet Explorer 6 and older Safari versions) do not support technology which is becoming widely used, and as such many agencies will need to forego some ‘features’ in the pursuit of compatibility. This reluctance to leave internet users behind is causing the internet to evolve slower than it could, and is in turn reducing the potential effectiveness of the internet as a whole.

Online technology is increasing exponentially. With the arrival of the .Net framework almost any developer (web or not) can now produce powerful online applications in whatever language they are most comfortable with, which means a lot more people are developing, and a lot companies are trying to ‘get more out of the system’. In all cases, the product is useless unless the end user is able to actually ‘use’ the products that are being developed, and to allow for this, browsers are constantly adding support for new technology - from code provision to file support. When a user upgrades to the latest browser, they are allowing their computer to effectively use the best of what is currently available.

Unfortunately, not all browsers support all new technology, and some have opted not to support some that they probably should have. This in itself causes significant friction for developers trying to offer bigger, powerful and faster online tools because they have to start adding work-arounds to support the shortcomings of a specific browser or bite the bullet and not support a browser all together.

New browsers such as Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 7 are able to self-update, to avoid falling behind the crowd, so once you’ve installed the latest version, you can sit back and forget about having to update because it will take care of itself.

Some of the features supported in the newer browsers but not the older ones include; semi-transparent PNG files, RSS reading, custom toolbar, advanced javascript support and default inclusion of plugins such as flash and java. Some features that are waiting to be included in soon-to-be-released browsers include; CSS3, increased RSS feed services, support for new Silverlight (Microsoft’s answer to flash) files and advanced file download management to name a few. These tools will all allow added flexibility to design and functionality, and ultimately make the users experience a lot more effective and enjoyable.

Some usability features such as tabbed browsing and integrated search toolbars have been introduced into newer versions as well which don’t really affect the page itself, but offer a less cluttered approach to the tools that are commonly used.

In fairness I need to note that as with all new technology there will be some teething issues and a bug here or there, and I don’t recommend upgrading as soon as a new version is available. I do however believe that 6-8 months is more than enough time to allow for significant problems to be resolved and an ideal time to upgrade.

I would recommend having at least 2 browsers installed on each computer to allow for quick transfer to an alternative if needed. This may be necessary if care hasn’t been taken during development to ensure cross-browser compatibility.

Below is a list of the current versions of the 4 major browsers, and a link to a page where you can view the upgraded features and download the necessary files.

Internet Explorer 7 was released in November 2006
Note: You will need a verified version of Windows to install IE7.
http://www.microsoft.com/windows/downloads/ie/getitnow.mspx

Firefox 2 was released June 2006
http://www.mozilla-europe.org/en/products/firefox/

Opera 9 was released in June 2006
http://www.opera.com/download/

Safari 3 was released in June 2007
http://www.apple.com/safari/download/