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The question “which browsers should my website/app support?” is often raised by clients and developers. The simple answer is a list of the top N mainstream applications. But has that policy become irrelevant?
What are the Most-used Browsers?
The top ten desktop browsers according to StatCounter for May 2017 were:
- Chrome — 59.37% market share
- Firefox — 12.76%
- Safari — 10.55%
- IE — 8.32%
- Edge — 3.42%
- Opera — 1.99%
- Android (tablet) — 1.24%
- Yandex Browser — 0.48%
- UC Browser — 0.41%
- Coc Coc — 0.33%
Mobile now accounts for 54.25% of all web use so we also need to examine the top ten phone browsers:
- Chrome — 49.23%
- Safari — 17.73%
- UC Browser — 15.89%
- Samsung Internet — 6.58%
- Opera — 5.03%
- Android — 3.75%
- IEMobile — 0.68%
- BlackBerry — 0.26%
- Edge — 0.15%
- Nokia — 0.12%
The worldwide statistics don’t tell the whole story:
- Patterns vary significantly across regions. For example, Yandex is the second most-used Russian browser (12.7% share). Sogou is the third most-used browser in China (6.5%). Opera Mobile/Mini has a 28% share in Africa.
- New browser releases appear regularly. Chrome, Firefox and Opera receive updates every six weeks; it would be impractical to check versions going back more than a few months.
- The same browsers can work differently across devices and operating systems. Chrome is available for various editions of Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, iOS and ChromeOS, but it’s not the same application everywhere.
- There is an exceedingly long tail of old and new, weird and wonderful browsers on a range of devices including games consoles, ebook readers and smart TVs.
- Your site’s analytics will never match global statistics.
Are Browsers So Different?
Despite the organic variety of applications, all browsers have the same goal: to render web pages. They achieve this with a rendering engine and there is some cross-pollination:
- Webkit is used in Safari on macOS and iOS.
- Blink is a fork of Webkit now used in Chrome, Opera, Vivaldi and Brave.
- Gecko is used in Firefox.
- Trident is used in Internet Explorer.
- EdgeHTML is an update of Trident used in Edge.
The majority of browsers use one of these engines. They’re different projects with diverse teams but the companies (mostly) collaborate via the W3C to ensure new technologies are adopted by everyone in the same way. Browsers are closer than they’ve ever been, and modern smartphone applications are a match for their desktop counterparts.
However, no two browsers render in quite the same way. The majority of differences are subtle, but they become more pronounced as you move toward cutting-edge technologies. A particular feature may be fully implemented in one browser, partially implemented in another, and non-existent elsewhere.
Can My Site Work in Every Browser?
PE works well for content sites and apps with basic form-based functionality. It becomes less practical as you move toward applications with rich custom interfaces. Your new collaborative video editing app is unlikely to work in the decade-old IE7. It may not work on a small screen device over a 3G network. Perhaps it’s possible to provide an alternative interface but the result could be a separate, clunky application few would want to use. The cost would be prohibitive given the size of the legacy browser user base.
Site Owner Recommendations
Site owners should appreciate the following fundamentals and constraints of the web.
The web is not print!
Your site/app will not look identical everywhere. Each device has a different OS, browser, screen size, capabilities etc.
Functionality can differ
Your site can work for everyone but experiences and facilities will vary. Even something as basic as a date entry field can has a diverse range of possibilities but, ideally, the core application will remain operable.
Assess your project
Be realistic. Is this a content site, a simple app, a desktop-like application, a fast-action game etc. Establish a base level of browser compatibility. For example, it must work on most two-year-old browsers with a screen width of 600 pixels over a fast Wi-Fi connection.
Assess your audience
Don’t rely on global browser statistics. Who are the primary users? Are they IT novices or highly technical? Is it individuals, small companies or government organisations? Do they sit at a desk or are they on the move? No application applies to everyone — concentrate on the core users first.
Examine the analytics of your existing system where possible but appreciate the underlying data. If your app doesn’t work in Opera Mini, you’re unlikely to have Opera Mini users. Have you blocked a significant proportion of your market?
It’s amazing that a web page coded twenty years ago works today. It won’t necessarily be pretty or usable but browsers remain backward compatible. (Mostly. The
<blink> tag can stay dead!) However, technology evolves. The more complex your site or application, the more likely it will require ongoing maintenance.
Web Developer Recommendations
With a little care it’s possible to support a huge variety of browsers.
Embrace the web!
The web is a device-agnostic platform. Content and simpler interfaces can work everywhere: a modern laptop, a feature phone, a games console, IE6, etc. Learn the basics of progressive enhancement. Even if you choose not to adopt it for your full application, there will be pockets of functionality where it becomes invaluable.
Adopt Defensive Development Techniques
Consider the problem before reaching for the nearest pre-written module, library or framework. Understand the consequences of that technology before you start. Frameworks should provide a browser support list because they have been tested in limited number of applications.
Learn about browser limits and quirks. For example, if you’re considering an SVG chart, be aware that it can look odd in IE9 to 11 and fail in IE8 and below. That doesn’t mean it’s a binary choice of rejecting SVGs or abandoning IE support. There are always compromises which do not incur significant development. For example:
- accept SVG rendering is weird but it remains usable
- only show a table of data in IE, or
- provide an SVG download which IE users can open elsewhere.
Test early and test often
You cannot possibly test every device, but developing for a single browser is futile.
Continually test your project in a variety of applications. Leaving testing to the end will have catastrophic consequences. It’s easy for us to blame tools and browser inadequacies, but the majority of issues can be rectified during the development process if they’re spotted early.
That’s not to say everything must work identically in every browser every time. Feature regressions are inevitable. For example:
- Progressive Web Apps do not work offline on iPhones and iPads — but online operation is fine.
- CSS Grid is not supported in IE — but float, flexbox or full-width block fallbacks should be acceptable.
- The desktop edition of Firefox does not show a calendar for date fields — but users can still enter one.
Install a selection of browsers on your development PC. Mac and Linux users can obtain Microsoft Edge and IE testing tools at developer.microsoft.com/microsoft-edge/. It’s more difficult for Windows and Linux users to test Safari; online test services such as BrowserStack are the easiest option.
Modern browsers have excellent mobile emulation facilities, but use a few real devices to appreciate touch control and performance on slower hardware and networks.
Use HTTPS on your end
The web is gradually making HTTPS the preferred protocol, and this trend is going to continue. Google Chrome is even starting to indicate that non-HTTPS sites as insecure, which is a good reason for you to configure your site to use HTTPS. Our web hosting partner, SiteGround, for example, made it easy for their clients to make the move to HTTPS. To do that, they automated the installation of Let’s Encrypt SSL certificates for all new WordPress accounts, and for existing ones, they made the switch to HTTPS possible with just a click.
You Haven’t Answered the Question!
The question “which browsers should you support?” has become too restrictive. Presume your answer was just “Chrome”:
- which devices and OS is it running on?
- what range of screen sizes will be supported?
- which version are you referring to? The latest? Chrome 10 and above?
- what happens when a new version of Chrome is released?
- what will happen in other browsers when Chrome effectively becomes your application’s runtime?
Providing a browser support list has become impractical for client-facing projects. Perhaps the best answer is: “we’ll develop your project according to presumed demographics then test as in many devices, OSes, browsers, and versions as possible according to budget and time constraints”. Even then, you’ll miss that aging Blackberry the CEO insists on using.
Develop for the web — not browsers.
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Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.