Surviving Browser Compatibility Issues

If you thought browser compatibility issues were on their way out, think again. As more organizations realize the cost savings of using a web application over a traditional desktop application, and more and more software becomes packaged as software as a service, some of the same issues that plagued desktop apps have come back to haunt in the Web world. As installed software gives way to the web services, the complexities of  operating system versions and software updates have faded. On the other hand, as we demand more and more from web applications, arcane browser version issues now surface. 

Why should this be when browsers evolve and improve at an ever faster pace? As of October 2011, Microsoft Internet Explorer’s browser share fell below 50 percent% even as IE9 offers lots of great new features. Firefox has had a breakneck pace of change and yet Google Chrome continues to gain share at about 1 percent a month. And Apple Safari dominates mobile browsing use (“i” users apparently browse way more than Android and other mobile users). Note what the author calls the browser long tail. Its not just the persistence of Microsoft  IE6,  users also now complicate things by  hanging onto older versions of Firefox. Another useful  site for exploring these issues is netmarketshare: you see a lot of the useful content even without a paid, premium account there.
 
Should your organization choose one browser and version, lock it down and prevent updates? Unfortunately this is not a practical strategy. 
 
It is hard to turn off updates. For Chrome users, in case you have been looking, you can’t find it anymore. You can now only do so at the operating system level and not in the browser settings. Firefox users can still do so at Tools -> Options -> Advanced -> Update. Yet, Mozilla, which had reached a popular “stable” Firefox version 3.6 less than two years ago, really wants users to update to version 7, with 8 on its way. 
 
Browser updates address security and performance. They help protect users against on-line threats that go beyond old style email attachment viruses. And we want them to continue tune performance metrics. If we do more and more on-line, we probably need to have more and more browser tabs open at the same time. Those browser tabs gobble up memory and system resources. If you don’t regularly update, you lose out. 
 

Enter HTML5

Browsers continue to evolve also to support ever richer interactive web browsing experiences. When Apple declared war on Adobe Flash on its mobile devices, you might have wondered, what’s the alternative? An emerging alternative for multi-media and other interactive experience focuses on HTML5. HTML5 long term promises standard, streamlined ways for web applications to provide the interactive experience once only possible on the desktop, and now tied in with the web services we want.
 
With HTML 5, we have a new web standard, yet what HTML5 covers continues to evolve and the compliance of browsers and software tools varies. For the curious, here is one place you can go to check how well your browser supports HTML5: http://html5test.com/.  If you think that HTML5 is already an old issue, have some fun on that site. Another useful--and fun--site is  http://caniuse.com 
 
My colleague David Gabbe, who often finds himself mired in the middle of browser compatibility issues for Drupal and Microsoft .Net, encouraged me to write about this issue: “HTML 5 promises much, the change is a big one with some bumps along the way.  But developers must do a good job following CSS and HTML best practices to realize the hype.” Even complete software-as-a-service environments can have browser issues, especially for new rich-browser features and for custom-developed pages. 
 
Spending time checking browser versions and updates will continue to be part of the life of developers for a  while. And developers have to be creative to stay on top. To take one example, though Safari use remains low on both Windows and Mac desktops, we still test sites there. Fixing a CSS or similar compatibility issue in Safari will often prevent it from showing later on an iPad or iPhone. 
 

Installed Software Return as Mobile Apps

 
Will browsers matter less because apps will matter more again—now as installed mobile phone and tablet?  The difference between a mobile-friendly site and a mobile app is also an important one. Creating apps can be a way to regain control compared to the anarchy of browsers and browser versions. David commented, “The rise of the mobile devices --phones and tablets -- has led developers to consider the pros and cons of a web app on a small screen. Mobile devices offer capabilities, such as GPS and bar code scanner via the camera, that  today can only be accessed thru a mobile app.  Yet the plurality of mobile devices places a strain on developers whether they are making an app or web page.”
 
Overall, browser based applications will continue to dominate. An uptodate Drupal site should render just fine on most phones, and that is one good reason among many for using a modern, standards-compliant content management system. Another note: Amazon and other companies may turn to HTML5 web sites as an alternative to mobile apps to  by-pass Apple app store licensing restrictions. 
 

Managing Bookmarks with Multiple Broswers

To end on a practical note. All these issues generally make it harder to exist with just one favorite browser. If a feature on a favorite site suddenly stops working, the culprit could be an update to the site, a security patch to its server software, a browser update, or something else. Unfortunately, this often means shifting back and forth among browsers. 
 
A big challenge with browser hopping is bookmarks. If you only use one browser, you may be able to nicely sync with your mobile. Maybe you find that appealing. I don’t find that I need my whole bookmark repertoire on my cell phone or tablet. What’s more important to me to be able to pick up a bit of reading or research started in one browser and continue it in another, sometimes switching from desktop to mobile, sometimes same machine. How to do this is going to be a matter of taste, and I mostly want to encourage you to believe you can make a multi-browser world work for you. Rather than use a service that just syncs bookmarks, I use a combination of three things that can store bookmarks cross browser and also do more. 
  • Delicious. After a rough time this year, it’s back and improved, and I’m back on it. Browser add-ins will let you book marks sites there instead of using the browser’s bookmarks.
  • Evernote: For project research, Evernote is a great place to save bookmarks as well as whole pages, and to add your own notes and tags to them. The articles I read for this post accumulated in Evernote.
  • And last, for things you want to read today, check out Pulse news for your Android or iOS device. It supercedes a traditional news reader. And it neatly lets you clip an article on your desktop and mark it to read later on your mobile. 

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Like some other posts, getting this out of my system has been therapeutic. It is hard to explain to client project leads why browser testing and updates matter these days. Moving to the web to escape desktop complexity today is not without irony, since we still have to deal with installed desktop (or mobile) environments, this time with regard to the browser. The good news is that the direction is positive and the benefit for users will be the kind of interactive user experience in the browser that we all expect and want today.
 
 

 

Comments

One of the best HTML5 browser

One of the best HTML5 browser support is Google chrome. Firefox support all the features of HTML5 audio and video elements except multiple backgrounds. In web applications mozila support all the features except WebSQLdatabase and IndexDB Database.

the more things change...

Nice wrap up on the new issues around compatibility. The HTML 5 test sites are super handy - so glad you shared them.

late breaking related news from Adobe

Thanks, Heather. Here's a timely update on the future of Flash: http://mashable.com/2011/11/09/adobe-mobile-browser-flash/. Follows from other moves over recent months by Adobe toward HTML5. Life will remain interesting for a while for software developers, IT managers, and program directors selecting software.