The Browser Wars: Not Taking Sides

The following is republished from the Tech Times #151.

Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox 2 logosThe past week has seen the releases of both Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox 2. The browser wars are back on, and for the first time in a while, it’s our duty as responsible developers not to take sides.

In response to the IE 7 release announcement on SitePoint, I was surprised at the proportion of comments vowing to “stick with Firefox”, some even suggesting they wouldn’t bother installing the IE 7 update at all!

Thanks to its versatile extension system, Firefox is likely to remain the primary browser on most web developers’ systems, I’ll certainly grant you that. But these latest releases are in no way justification for us to treat Internet Explorer as a second-class citizen in the work that we do! If anything, we should be looking to embrace any browser that prioritizes support for web standards by basing our work on those standards.

And in that respect, Internet Explorer 7 is most certainly a very respectable stride in the right direction. I just don’t understand how people can claim that IE 7 has “horrible CSS support.” Microsoft has done an excellent job of fixing the most significant shortcomings in IE 6’s CSS support with this release, and based on recent progress of these two browsers’ CSS support, I find myself beginning to doubt Mozilla’s ability to maintain its lead over Microsoft in this area. And heck, if I was only going to use the browser with the best CSS support today, I’d be hitching my wagon to Opera.

In terms of the work it’s doing today to support standards, Microsoft is right up there. Microsoft has plenty of ground to make up, and it remains to be seen whether these current efforts will be sustained, but if we consider which browser vendor is doing the work that will most benefit everyday web developers (as opposed to the more esoteric features appearing in Firefox 2), Microsoft is arguably doing the best work in browser development right now!

Internet Explorer 7 is a landmark release, in that it will allow us in a year’s time to look back and wonder (as we wonder today at the limitations that Netscape 4 used to impose on us) how we ever got by without things like PNG transparency, min/max-height/width, and :hover on all elements (not just hyperlinks).

Don’t get me wrong: Firefox 2 is an impressive update, completing Mozilla’s hat trick of three major Firefox releases in as many years. Some of the exciting technologies buried under its hood (particularly in the JavaScript engine) hint at an exciting future in which they are more widely supported. With this release, Firefox has truly solidified its position on the desktops of developers everywhere.

But for the first time in years I believe it is our responsibility as developers to let our users make up their own minds about which browser they prefer. By building standards-based sites that will ensure the browser makers’ continued interest in improving standards support, we can step back and let the browser wars be fought not on the basis of which browser renders sites most correctly (they should all render them just fine), but rather on the basis of which browser can offer the best user experience for its particular user base.

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  • Anonymous
  • Yannick

    Hi Kevin,

    Writing over the good things that IE7 bring us is all good, and I’ll wait to see what you say about FF2 when you test it.

    As the link above shows, CNet writers are not impressed with 5 added features in nearly 2.5 years of development. And none of these features is really original, from what I can see.

    I myself am a little disappointed, knowing that IE is one of the main pieces of the Microsoft puzzle/jigsaw, to see that there is so little and that most things in there can already be found in FF2.

    Inside the CNet article, the Acid2 Test indirect link (http://www.webstandards.org/action/acid2/) is a nice stuff to check while testing your browser. Apparently FF doesn’t comply fully either, but Opera does.

  • http://boyohazard.net Octal

    I appreciate what you are saying Kevin, but it’s too idealistic a crusade for me. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again; too little too late.

  • Anonymous

    > … to support standards, Microsoft is right up there …

    IE6 (five years ago) and IE7 (today) still don’t support HTML properly. They left out one of the elements (commonly referred to as “tags”). The element is the Q element which is used for inline quotations. It has caused problems for years and most time quote marks are used they are character entities instead of being marked as quotes.

    If IE had supported Q (or if authors just coded to spec instead of to IE) then (for example) Google could have had quotes.google.com where you could search for quotes in any page on the web.

    More importantly, Microsoft just decided not to support part of the spec it helped create. I cannot compliment them on any gains until that is fixed.

  • hannson

    For my user experience I prefer FF. But I like the Quick tabs feature in IE and it’s sexy interface!

  • Stevie D

    Internet Explorer has now caught up with where Firefox was a year or two ago.

    Firefox has now caught up with where Opera was a year or two ago.

    I’ve not seen anything in the release of either IE7 or Fx2 that suggests I’m missing out by sticking with Opera, either as a user or as a developer!

  • http://www.sitepoint.com/ Kevin Yank

    hannson,

    For a Firefox QuickTabs-like extension try Viamatic foXpose.

  • Joe

    As developers what do we do:
    Do we upgrade to IE7 and keep a separate machine with IE6 installed on it? (I understand that you cannot have both versions installed side by side in the same PC)
    Or do we stick to IE6 for the time being and wait until IE7 has been installed by enough users to justify the upgrade?

  • Anonymous

    kevin, if m$ is so damn cool and their browser (eventually) rocks then how come it took firefox to the motion of web standards forward huh?

    i doubt m$ will in any way, infringe on the market share that firefox enjoys today; it is firefox and the team behind firefox that are creating a new, better and a more innovative internet – not m$

    if you have forgotten so soon? it’s open source that rocks. btw, i’ve now moved to linux so that just about kills of ie7, doesn’t it? :D

    dr livingston.

  • http://www.peterbailey.net beetle

    I agree with Kevin, and think arguments like “too little, too late” miss the point. Here’s why.

    IE is a browser we have to deal with. Even if MS never, ever released another version, it would be years before IE users dwindled to a population so small that we could afford to stop caring about them. Aren’t you glad that

    But, instead, we have IE7 now – not years from now. That means adoption will be high within 6 months and maybe complete within a year. And that’s a good thing. How many times have you smashed some javascript in your page to mimic position: fixed? Or done the same because IE6 only supports :hover for anchors? The min/max width/height support is fantastic for flexible layouts. We now have proper PNG support and more advanced selectors (attribute selectors, yay!).

    This is all apart from the fact that the IE team fixed no less than 16 of IE’s biggest rendering bugs (http://blogs.msdn.com/ie/archive/2006/08/22/712830.aspx)

    Remember, as a web developer, you have to develop for IE – aren’t you happy to know that in a year, your job will be so much easier in that regard? I know I am. That’s what should matter – opinions about their (Microsoft’s) motives, business practices, or whatever, should be segregated from this topic.

  • DevonWright

    I’m using both, as well as a stand alone IE6, as those are the 3 browsers my clients are most likely to use.

  • http://diigital.com cranial-bore

    I agree completely with this post. The fact that FF, Opera or any other browser pushed standards, tabs, popup blockers or whatever first isn’t the point.
    The users of the internet overwhealmingly don’t give a damn how well their browser supports standards, whether they are open source or even how secure they are. As beetle said I think we are lucky that in the near future the average level of standards-support for any given visitor to your website will be significantly higher than what it is now.
    I’m glad Microsoft have done the work they have. While other products may have been first to the “standards market”, MS will bring them to the masses. Something they didn’t have to do if they didn’t want to.

    I also see no problem with the relatively small number of new features. MS Office is packed with features that 80% of the users never touch. Often less is more.

  • Tamar Weinberg

    “But for the first time in years I believe it is our responsibility as developers to let our users make up their own minds about which browser they prefer.”

    I’m inclined to agree with you there, but the users I deal with on a regular basis at my web design firm don’t even know what Firefox is and therefore don’t even compare multiple browsers in order to make an educated decision.

  • Anonymous

    Firefox is great, and IE7 is a long-awaited improvement, but supporting Opera, with its excellent standards support, is good for everyone who cares about the overall health of the web.

  • LinhGB

    In terms of the work it’s doing today to support standards, Microsoft is right up there. Microsoft has plenty of ground to make up, and it remains to be seen whether these current efforts will be sustained, but if we consider which browser vendor is doing the work that will most benefit everyday web developers (as opposed to the more esoteric features appearing in Firefox 2), Microsoft is arguably doing the best work in browser development right now!

    While IE7 is a step in the right direction, albeit 5 years too late, I think your comment is a bit too much into the MS worshipping zone. Yeah MS is right up there behind all other browser vendors, mate. Firefox, Opera, Safari, Konqueror, Camino, you-name-it are all better than IE7 in standards support and features. The only thing IE7 has over them is the market share and that’s only because IE comes as the default browser on new computers.

  • Stevie D

    I agree completely with this post. The fact that FF, Opera or any other browser pushed standards, tabs, popup blockers or whatever first isn’t the point.

    If other browsers had stopped their development there, I might agree. But they haven’t. Opera have continued to improve their product, with loads of new features in each release, which is pretty much every year.

    They developed tabbed browsing years ago, and continue improving the system every time. Pop-up blockers appeared so long ago I’ve forgotten what life was like without them – and they have relentlessly worked to make them more effective. They developed “quick searching” years ago, and continue improving it – I can now search on up to 26 search engines or websites of my choice with just a single key stroke in the address bar. They beat IE to full support for CSS1 by years, and are already building in extensive support for CSS3 while IE are still working towards moderate support for CSS2!

    The teams at Opera and Mozilla care deeply about the internet and the quality of experience for users and developers, that much is evident in their product. Microsoft, for all the work they have done playing catch-up (and credit to them for trying) don’t have the same vision, they don’t care, they are just trying to regain their market share. And that is why I will continue to use and evangelise Opera and, to a lesser extent, Firefox.

  • dawgbone

    Regardless of what you prefer, the point is the majority of users out there will continue to use IE for the forseeable future.

    This garbage about how your choice is the right one is completely irrelevant… your choice is the right one for you in particular.

    Face it, you won’t be able to convince the 75% of the people out there to switch, so instead of whining about it, deal with it.

    This is a giant step in the right direction, and the developer community should be happy.

  • Pillager

    Man r u high? My website rendering looks like crap in IE7 and great in FF1, FF1.5, FF2, Opera, Safari & IE6. Talk about improvement.

  • jnicol

    As developers what do we do:
    Do we upgrade to IE7 and keep a separate machine with IE6 installed on it? (I understand that you cannot have both versions installed side by side in the same PC)

    You can indeed have side by side installations of Internet explorer, and have been able to do so for some time now. However it’s only recently that the final kinks have been ironed out of the standalone versions. See my article on this topic for more info.

    I suggest installing IE7 as your default install of IE, and using Tredosoft’s standalone installer to take care of older versions for testing and development purposes. Have fun!

    On the topic of IE7 vs FF2: I for one am pleased that IE have jumped back on the horse. I hope that this doesn’t eat into Mozilla’s share of the browser market, but I do think that competition keeps everyone on their toes. So long as the browser war is fought on UI and software features (as Kevin predicts), I think it’s good for the development community. I’d rather see IE moving forward rather than not moving at all.

  • Anonymous

    Firefox 2.0 still cannot handle CSS code and renders my website as terrible and unrecognizeable. Microsoft IE has been able to handle the CSS in my website since IE 5.5 !! So all this bashing of IE 7 comes from people who don’t know much
    about website design.

  • http://www.sitepoint.com AlexW

    Firefox 2.0 still cannot handle CSS code and renders my website as terrible and unrecognizeable. Microsoft IE has been able to handle the CSS in my website since IE 5.5 !! So all this bashing of IE 7 comes from people who don’t know much about website design.

    Let the flaming….. begin!

  • Phil M

    As developers what do we do:
    Do we upgrade to IE7 and keep a separate machine with IE6 installed on it? (I understand that you cannot have both versions installed side by side in the same PC)
    Or do we stick to IE6 for the time being and wait until IE7 has been installed by enough users to justify the upgrade?

    Ideally you should try and use a separate machines for IE6 and IE7. If this isn’t possible keep IE6 for a while. IE7’s improved standards support means its much more likely to render pages like Firefox than IE6. Plus IE6 is still by far the most popular web browser, so this is the most important browser to test with.

  • http://www.deletespyware-adware.com smithkarl

    Hi,

    I am a proud user of Firefox … Just opening both browsers and visiting google you see a huge difference.

    IE7 is slower, while Firefox is not just faster, but much easier to open new tabs and navigate…

    I did upgrade though, cause at least IE7 might be more secure than previous versions.

    Karl

  • http://www.calcResult.co.uk omnicity

    IE7 has definitly made my job harder: IE7 will not run on Win2k, unlike 5, 5.5 and 6, so I have had to invest in a new XP machine just to test. The bug fixes are enough to make this a necessity, but not to give it much in common with any other browser. The bugs that have been fixed make no significant difference to any of my work, and the fact that IE 5 will still be around in significant numbers in a years time, never mind IE6 (which may still be the major browser) means that I cannot take advantage of them anyway.

    I agree that we have a duty to be impartial – but I think that means that we have to stand up and tell the world that IE _still_ sucks: even IE7 is the worst browser you can choose.