Microsoft Office Online: a Case Against Supported Browser Lists

browser supportIf your hobbies include Microsoft-bashing, then read on. The company has announced that their new Office Web Applications will officially support IE7, IE8, and Firefox 3.5 on Windows and Safari 4 on Mac. There is no mention of Google Chrome or Opera so, understandably, many fans of those browsers are working themselves into a paranoid anti-trust frenzy.

The Office Web Apps blog states that other browsers may work and users should try them. Browsers won’t be blocked and Microsoft’s goal is to ensure broad compatibility and reach.

This begs the question: why should you, Microsoft, or any other company commit to “official” supported browser lists?

As I discussed in my previous article, web sites and applications should be written for the web — not browsers. We should strive for systems that are device-independent rather than targeting specific OS and browser combinations.

The Microsoft blog is correct when it states “not all browsers are equal”, but modern browsers are standards-compliant enough. It’s unusual to find a feature that’s impossible to implement and the only example Microsoft cites is text copying. Firefox’s default security settings do not permit JavaScript to copy text to the clipboard so, clicking the Office “copy” icon will display the following message:

Office Firefox copy alert

To me, that is a ridiculous solution. Why show the icon if your browser does not support copying? The alert message does not help or provide the keyboard alternatives; it torments the user and suggests Firefox is inferior (is that Microsoft’s intention?)

We currently have five mainstream browsers, numerous offshoots, and multiple versions of Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. It is impossible to test web applications across every combination of OS and browser. Publishing a list of officially supported browsers has simply lead to criticism and suggests other negative connotations:

  • Microsoft has not tested several popular browsers during development. Patching a product after release is far more difficult and time-consuming than comprehensive testing during the main development phase.
  • Will Office work in later versions of IE, Firefox or Safari? The web application is not due until 2010 — Firefox 4 and Safari 5 could certainly be available.

What would have happened had Microsoft not announced their supported browser list? Very little…

  • The Office web applications have not been released and will probably enter a beta phase.
  • Opera and Chrome users account for a small percentage of the market.
  • Only a proportion of those users would try the applications.
  • Few of them should encounter compatibility bugs.
  • Only a small percentage would report issues to Microsoft.

Microsoft might receive a handful of support requests, but that information could be invaluable when they attempt to fix compatibility problems.

If you’re developing the next big web application, maximum browser compatibility should be a priority:

  1. Componentize your code and unit-test in a variety of browsers.
  2. Test early and test often.
  3. Do not strive for unrealistic/identical cross-browser functionality.
  4. Use progressive enhancement to add features when the browser supports it.

Browser support lists are more trouble than they’re worth.

See also: 5 Reasons Why You Should Not Publish Supported Browser Lists.

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  • Dan Wellman

    As a side note, I love how microsoft recently said that developers must support IE6 until it expires, but then choose not to support it in their new flagship web app :D

    IE6 is so hard to support that even the company that made it won’t support it! Cheers M$!

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    I’m not sure MS ever said that we must support IE6. They are supporting the browser software until 2014, but that doesn’t mean your web application is obliged to run on IE6.

    That said, IE6 still has a large market share so you should support it if you want to maximize your revenue. We developers can rant all we like, but it doesn’t change the fact that many people continue to use the browser.

  • Aaron Morris

    I also noticed the obvious avoidance of IE6. After it ruined the internet (I’m only kind of joking) they are now choosing to act like it doesn’t exist? If they are going to tell me I have to support it then they should have to bite the bullet too.

  • emedepe

    After years critisizing Microsoft myself I am now beginning to be a bit tired of all this witch hunting against the company. Steve Balmer cannot go to the loo without Sitepoint pointing out that the way he flushed the toilet was not correct.

    If a functionality they have in one of their new applications do not work properly in a browser, what’s wrong with informing the user about it? Oh, yes, because we should develop for the web, and not for the browser. Keep dreaming.

    Should Microsoft has done such as a subreptitious (and treacherous) thing as Google did with Chrome, you would have burnt them in here. Google ambition has no way of being humanly measured. How long will it take before they start developing applications that will work only in Chrome? Oh, yes, they’ll never do that, because Google is not evil.

  • Jon K.

    The simple workaround for the Firefox thing is use keyboard shortcuts; they work just fine. (ctrl-x, ctrl-c and ctrl-v for cut, copy and paste).

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    @emedepe

    If a functionality they have in one of their new applications do not work properly in a browser, what’s wrong with informing the user about it?

    What’s wrong with fixing it?

    …such as a subreptitious (and treacherous) thing as Google did with Chrome…

    Wohhh — what have Google done? Is Chrome tormenting kittens or something? Sounds like a great story to me!

    Anyway, regardless to what you think, I’m not bashing MS or Office online — it might be great. I think they’ve been naive to publish a supported browser list, daft for doing it so early, and bonkers to think it wouldn’t attract criticism.

    However, I’ve a feeling MS like stirring up the web community. What’s worse than bad publicity?… No publicity at all.

  • Adam A Flynn

    In this case, I agree with Microsoft publishing an “officially supported browser” list. I can see the argument that had they just not said anything about browser support, they might get less attention on the subject… but, frankly, I think that would be a bit deceptive on their part. It’s about setting up expectations, which, from a business standpoint here, makes sense. They don’t want companies where everyone uses IE6 to go pay for Office Online and be shocked when it doesn’t work because they never said it wouldn’t work; similarly, they don’t want companies or individuals on Chrome or Opera to do it and expect Microsoft to fix the little bugs they encounter when, internally, they have no intention to.

    It isn’t practical for Microsoft to say it works in “every” browser. They should build it so it’s likely to work well in most modern browsers, but unless they are genuinely committed to supporting every single browser out there (which is impossible… what about the plethora of mobile browsers or Netscape or IE 5.5) with bug fixes, they should be up-front about which browsers they actually do plan to support so their customers can make an informed decision about whether or not this product meets their needs and their development team doesn’t take on unbounded risk by trying to implement hacks to support every obscure browser out there.

    So, I agree that companies should strive to make their apps work on most browsers by just doing things right the first time… but, in practice, it is not possible to declare that a complex web app will work entirely seamlessly with all browsers just because it was built well… and I don’t feel it’s a good idea to throw development effort at supporting a browser when there is no business case to justify it.

  • joezim007

    I think that if anything, sites should have official UNsupported browser lists. Sites should work on modern browsers across the board but obviously if there is an older browser ANY browser that you just cannot find solutions for, let people know, but I agree that supported browser lists are kinda dumb.

  • Craig S

    My hobby isn’t Microsoft bashing, but I read on anyway.

    Microsoft is a business, that provides official support for their products. It is ridiculous and not feasible to suggest that they can support every browser in existence just because the app is written well… because as you well know, browsers are different.

    You even cited the copy example (note how the feature doesn’t work in Firefox but Microsoft still supports it). You said “what a ridiculous solution”, but I haven’t seen what solution you offer. You asked “why show the icon”. Are you suggesting that the Office app check “is this Firefox?” and if no, then -not- show the copy icon? I hope not, because you’re the one who just said we should not code for the browser.

    Browser differences are reality. I’m sure I can find plenty of tutorials on Sitepoint for how to use moz-rounded-corners or whatever it’s called, which smells like coding for a browser to me.

  • JdL

    Craig, you really need to get a clue. Microsoft’s whole approach to ‘supported browser lists’ is completely different from the rest of the industry. Take the web interface for Exchange 2007, for example. While Exchange 2007 supports both IE and ‘other’ browsers, Microsoft actually when to great lengths to build separate interfaces for each. The IE version leverages IE-specific features and ActiveX controls, whereas the ‘other’ version is significantly dumbed down. Microsoft does this with all of its web-based products.

    Microsoft is on the verge of taking all of its traditional desktop applications and moving them online. There is a LOT of interactive functionality involved (a lot of which there aren’t established standards around), making the process of testing in multiple browsers extremely costly for them. From a practical / realistic perspective, it makes sense them to focus on their own browser — and try to support others on a more ‘casual’ basis.

    It’s completely ridiculous to use this as a case against publishing supported browser lists. Why don’t you just come out and say that YOU ARE BASHING MICROSOFT instead of bashing tried-and-true accessibility standards?

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    @Adam A Flynn

    It isn’t practical for Microsoft to say it works in “every” browser.

    They don’t need to say anything. That’s my point. IE5 and Netscape users wouldn’t expect a good experience … but why not support Opera and Chrome (which uses the same engine as Safari)?

    @Craig S

    It is ridiculous and not feasible to suggest that they can support every browser in existence

    For a rich application like Office, I’d agree that support for something like Lynx is impractical. But why not support the top 5 browsers?

    Are you suggesting that the Office app check “is this Firefox?”

    No — you use object detection (or try a copy and watch for a failure). I’d hope MS were doing that to show the warning message. Firefox can be configured to enable JS copying, so detecting the browser is futile.

    (Incidentally, IE will still pop up a “are you sure you want to copy” dialog when clicking the icon. To be honest, it’ll be a nasty user experience no matter which browser you use. It’d be better to drop that functionality altogether.)

    Object detection will solve most of problems you encounter. Browser detection and workarounds will be necessary in extreme cases, but they are the exception and should be avoided if possible.

    Finally, -moz-border-radius (or the webkit/CSS3 equivalents) is a good example of progressive enhancement. I’d prefer to use CSS3 notation but it’s a quick and easy fix if Firefox users are important to you. As mentioned, not all browsers need to look and act the same — it’s the core functionality that counts.

  • http://xslt2processor.sourceforge.net boen_robot

    @Craig Buckler

    If a functionality they have in one of their new applications do not work properly in a browser, what’s wrong with informing the user about it?

    What’s wrong with fixing it?

    In the case of coping (and other similar cases that may arise when new features are added), how do you suggest they do that?

    Telling the actual shortcuts is fine, however they depend on browser settings and/or OS settings. Sure, they could’ve (and I’d agree they should’ve) said something like “(Default on most Windows browsers is CTRL+X, CTRL+C and CTRL+V for cut, copy and paste respectively)”.

    What would have happened had Microsoft not announced their supported browser list?

    Some of the IE6 users will try out the app, and when it doesn’t work, they’ll contact the MS support staff. Microsoft will have two options -
    A) support IE6 by fixing whatever issues the user has encountered, potentially at the expense of more modern browsers, and at the expense of developer’s time.
    B) Decline support.

    Doing B) only creates yet another Microsoft bashing session for why they don’t react to user feedback. Therefore, if they hadn’t released a browser support list that happens to also exclude IE6, they’d get a lot of support calls expecting support that they don’t offer (maintaining a browser and maintaining sites running with a certain browser are two different things). With the list in place, the MS support staff can point the user to it saying “Microsoft Office Online is not supported in your browser. Please use on of the supported browsers.”. The customer is relatively satisfied, as (s)he now knows its their browser’s fault, and not his/her. The user also realises they must upgrade if they are to use this app. If they can’t, they don’t use the site (Microsoft can afford to lose those customers… besides… they want IE6 dead just as much as you do… it’s just that “We keep our commitments“…), and if they can, they upgrade. One more for the “die IE6 cause”.

    If you’re developing the next big web application, maximum browser compatibility should be a priority

    “next big web application” and IE6 (as well as the larger part of mobile browsers) are sort of incompatible things. Yes, Firefox, Opera, Safari, Chrome, IE8 and maybe (just maybe) IE7… but not that. “standards” only work in standards aware browsers, i.e. browsers that fully and bug freely implement the standard, or at least let you detect its features, so that you can react.

    Tell me, how do I detect which event is fined when and if it’s fired at all? How do I detect if a browser supports a certain image format like SVG for example? How do I detect if a certain CSS selector and/or property is implemented (and therefore displayed) correctly? All of that without any actual browser sniffing. Detecting if a certain DOM method is implemented correctly is possible (jQuery does it…), but it’s expensive in terms of execution time and/or memory (mostly memory in the case of jQuery), and requires that you only test methods you know to be buggy in certain browsers, and assumes everything else is flawless.

    In an ideal world (think, where every browser that’s still in use at least passes Acid3, and has full SVG 1.1 Full and WICD support), having browser support list will indeed be useless. We’re still far aware from that. And if the next cool thing (say… XForms) is also undetectable, we’ll eventually resort to such lists again.

  • Adam A Flynn

    @Craig B

    They don’t need to say anything. That’s my point. IE5 and Netscape users wouldn’t expect a good experience … but why not support Opera and Chrome (which uses the same engine as Safari)?

    I’m not trying to make an argument in favour of their lack of support for Opera and Chrome. (Although, I find their solution of saying “we won’t promise support for it, but if you wanna use them, go right ahead” sufficient… I’d be a touch annoyed if they didn’t allow people on those browsers to use the app like some do) What I am saying is that you have to draw the line somewhere. It’s their call where they draw it, but it should be drawn and should be communicated.

    Do all IE 5.5 or 6 users know that they’re using a terrible browser? I’d wager that there’s a fair number that don’t (including businesses that could be wanting to use Office Online). Unless you communicate to them that their browser isn’t going to be very good with this software, many users would assume that their browser will work fine (reasonably so, especially if they don’t even understand that there is a difference among web browsers). It’s all about setting expectations of their customers.

  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au Tyssen

    It’s their call where they draw it, but it should be drawn and should be communicated.

    And in this case it seems to be drawn against: a) their biggest competitor in online applications and b) the company who instigated the EU antitrust case against them.

  • http://www.cemerson.co.uk Stormrider

    why not support Opera and Chrome

    Because they both have the smallest market share out of the 5 browsers, and they decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Just a business decision. What’s wrong with that?

  • http://pixopoint.com/ ryanhellyer

    Great article Craig.

    There is no reason they can’t support Opera and Chrome. Making their application work in Chrome and Opera would likely be significantly easier than getting it to work in IE anyway. Sounds like a bunch of marketing bull to me.

    Hopefully they don’t spit out error messages whenever I try to use it in Chrome. Hotmail did that for months and it drove me nuts. Everything worked in Chrome just as it should but the stupid error message was a royal PITA.

  • Mal Curtis

    I believe that not removing buttons if you’re in Firefox is also part of Microsoft’s UI Guidelines. If you were to use the app in both browsers then you would be getting a different look without any explanation. This is far more confusing to users than having a nice wee pop up.

    So what if you use the copy button and get an annoying message? You know what 99% of people will do…? They won’t hit the button again. It’s that easy.

    The other 1% are uppity Web Developers and will go somewhere to soap box about it ;)

  • http://www.rwtconsultants.com israelisassi

    How much money and personnel should a company be expected to commit in order to support virtually every browser on virtually every platform in existence…????

    If a product or website exists that fits your needs and desires you are free to use it, and if it doesn’t work for you then you are just as free to not use it.

    Change the channel if you don’t like what’s on TV. It really is that simple.

  • flashmind

    chrome is still new and unstable, (and yes I do use it because it is quick) and for those who use opera, I have one question. Why?

  • forever4now

    People need to stop “polluting” the internet!

    Try the following Acid3 test, on IE 8 (or earlier) and compare the results to Firefox 3.5, Chrome 2, Safari 4 and/or Opera 10. IE fails miserably, while the other browsers pass with flying colors (see Wikipedia, for a description of Acid3).

    http://acid3.acidtests.org/

    Now…try viewing the following HTML5 video, with IE 8 (or earlier). You CANNOT!

    http://demo.sproutcore.com/video/

    Try viewing this same video with Chrome or Safari. You CAN! And, it looks AWESOME!

    Face it. Microsoft resists standards. It prefers to do what it wants, the way it wants, whenever it wants. And, as a result of IE’s large market share, this makes the lives of web developers miserable & stifles web innovation.

    WHAT IS THE POINT OF POSSIBLY WAITING YEARS, FOR IE’s PAINFULLY SLOW MARKET DECLINE, TO BE ABLE TO BENEFIT FROM AN INTERNET BASED ON OPEN STANDARDS?

    The internet community can make it happen NOW!

    - Encourage/help your family & friends, to move to standards-compliant browsers.
    - Encourage your employer, to use a standards-compliant browser (or install a 2nd, if there’s an IE dependency).
    - Have standards-compliant browsers installed on shared computers (libraries, schools, internet cafes, …).
    - Buy PCs from vendors who default to a standards-compliant browser (e.g. Sony & Apple).
    - Buy smartphones, eReaders & other mobile devices, equipped with standards-compliant browsers.
    - Buy game consoles, TVs, set-top boxes, etc., equipped with standards-compliant browsers.

    Perhaps, the W3C should even offer stickers, that can be placed on a vendor’s box, that say “X.X-compliant browser installed”, to help consumers & businesses choose products that support the latest web standards. This would have the added benefit of giving vendors, who support & promote open web standards, a marketing advantage over their competitors.

    REMEMBER: Every time you launch a non-standards-compliant browser you are, in essence, “polluting” the internet. Please, STOP polluting the internet, so that EVERYONE (developers & users) can enjoy the benefits of it!

  • http://autisticcuckoo.net/ AutisticCuckoo

    Because they both have the smallest market share out of the 5 browsers, and they decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

    And why do they have the smallest market share? Perhaps (partly) because app developers deliberately don’t test in them – or even try to block them?

    for those who use opera, I have one question. Why?

    I can only speak for myself, not other Opera users. My reasons are that Opera is secure, fast, superbly standards-compliant, highly configurable and has invaluable features that no other browser has. It also includes an excellent email application, an RSS reader, great developer’s tools etc etc without the need to download and install dozens of extensions. And yet the download footprint is smaller than a limited bare-bones browser like Firefox (which, according to some sources, need no less than 150 extensions to match the features built into Opera).

  • seriously

    if someone doesn’t want to support a graphics card for a game or a certain platform no-one b*tches nearly as much as web developers about things… and Craig do you really want your life to be about writing this type of article that generates anger all the time?

  • DS

    This is ridiculous. I’m no big MS fan, but I hate this attitude of hating MS for all good or bad they do. If this same thing was done by Apple or Google, we’d have seen all sorts of explanations from fans justifying it.

    We as web developers know, that even with all the modern web browsers being standards compliant, it is always a little bit of challenge to make a web-app look and work EXACTLY the same on all browsers. MS could have very well made it only work on just the IE family and forgot the rest. But they did not, like a clever business wouldn’t have. They want it to have a broader reach.

    <b>This is no material for a good article… not for sitepoint, not for any established tech website.</b>

  • Jasconius

    But why not support the top 5 browsers?

    Because they are a business and it is in the long term interest of Microsoft to encourage and/or force its users to use IE8? I don’t understand why Sitepoint attempts to hold Microsoft to any standard above technology conglomerate. Just because they wrote a browser that passes a few arbitrary tests doesn’t mean they are the Sisters of Mercy when it comes to web standards.

  • http://www.keystonecapitalchorus.org DaveMaxwell

    Try the following Acid3 test, on IE 8 (or earlier) and compare the results to Firefox 3.5, Chrome 2, Safari 4 and/or Opera 10. IE fails miserably, while the other browsers pass with flying colors (see Wikipedia, for a description of Acid3).

    snip…

    Now…try viewing the following HTML5 video, with IE 8 (or earlier). You CANNOT!

    snip…

    Face it. Microsoft resists standards. It prefers to do what it wants, the way it wants, whenever it wants. And, as a result of IE’s large market share, this makes the lives of web developers miserable & stifles web innovation.

    First of all, you can’t say (or earlier) when looking at either the Acid3 test or HTML5 because NONE of the other browsers (with the exception of Chrome) passed the test prior to their latest versions.

    But IE8 wasn’t built to pass Acid3 because it has non-”standard” pieces in it (the CSS3 portions espcially – they are still just at best candidate recommendations). HTML5 is still an editors draft…. Heck even the Acid3 test has changed a half dozen times since it started.

    The main reason is because they got burnt trying to implement evolving “standards” in IE6….

    http://www.osnews.com/story/21193/_IE8_Does_Not_Pass_Acid3_Because_Standards_Not_Official_

    Note: The linked article does say that they should have done what everyone else did and made it a “standard”. While I agree with that (especially the ECMAScript stuff), if you get burnt enough times at the stove, even the dumbest person will stop touching the stove. Examplee of these kinds of burns are behaviors in css (some of which are now being done differently in css3), image effects, page transitions, EOT fonts, etc.

  • http://edgedirector.com/ plumsauce

    I take it that this article is related to browser compatibility.

    I don’t really know, because the top two thirds of the article is obscured by the left navigation panels and the right panels require side scrolling.

    Running IE6 with a 1050 wide screen, 1050×1680 in portrait mode. Portrait mode is great for reading documents, but not when the style sheet goes wrong.

  • WOW

    I am new to this website, and stumbled upon this garbage of an “article”, along with the previous one from this guy. Not impressed. I will just go back to CNET and ZD where they are not biased and bash companies they do not agree with.

  • vgarcia

    If you’ll remember all the way back to 2006 or so, Google Docs really only worked in Firefox and IE at the time. Safari was not well supported at all. Google eventually fixed that. Hopefully Microsoft will do the same but who knows.

    At the same time from a business and marketing perspective, how many Opera/Chrome users will really use Microsoft’s online office suite? I doubt that it’s a large number at all (in both absolute terms and market share terms).

    At the same time, lets take this “we should support everyone” argument to its logical conclusion: where’s the mobile browser support? I’m pretty sure mobile Safari has far more users than Opera or Chrome at this point. If you want Microsoft to really work this in “every browser” where’s the outrage for that?

  • G

    So much has been written about Microsoft’s practices, I am curious to know readers thoughts on Apple’s monopolistic practices. For example, your iPhone can only sync with iTunes; Safari is the only browser available on iPhone, etc.etc.

    It would be nice to know what people think about those or we just can deal with one “Evil” at a time.

    Thanks

    G

  • http://www.dangrossman.info Dan Grossman

    It would be totally irresponsible for Microsoft to release a product without system requirements (which a supported browser list is for a web app).

    Their users are businesses. IT departments need assurances, guarantees, so that they can plan, pitch, budget and get approvals.

    Simple as that. Your suggestions are incompatible with the business world.

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    Remember that the product hasn’t been released, is several months away at best, and the browser market will change during that time. It’s not even clear how the Office web apps will be marketed — few businesses try MS products until they’re fully established.

    Even so, Microsoft have stated that they’re going to try and make it available to all modern browsers. It wouldn’t surprise me if they’re just lowering expectations for v1.

  • spheroid

    Maybe in a perfect world what you say is true. But as long as greed and lack of cooperation (standards & cooperative innovation) are around, this will always be the case. I created a web application that I have to tell users to use IE 7 for now, uses Google Maps heavily, because what it needs to print only occurs in IE 7.