What Does “Support” Mean?

Unfortunately for us web designers and developers, not all web surfers use the latest and greatest versions of their browsers. Some folks are hesitant to upgrade, others don’t know they should upgrade, and yet others have hardware that is outdated to a point where upgrading is not an option.

One fear organizations often have when they consider moving to a CSS-based approach is whether doing so will alienate these users. The reality, though, is that a properly implemented web-standards method of web development will actually make your site more accessible to users with older browsers. You see, in the first era of web development (which lasted throughout the ’90s), we were forced to make hard choices about which browsers we would support. The vast differences between browsers meant we needed to rewrite most aspects of each site for each one, and this was only practical to do for a few choice browsers.

Mosaic Browser Plaque NCSA
Plaque commemorating the creation of Mosaic web browser by Eric Bina and Marc Andreessen, new NCSA building, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Netscape Navigator was later developed by many of the original Mosaic authors; however, it intentionally shared no code with Mosaic. Netscape Navigator’s code descendant was Mozilla.

Modern web development (using web standards), on the other hand, allows us to support all browsers at least in some capacity. And when we refer to all browsers, we mean all. This includes the version of Mosaic released in the early ’90s all the way up to today’s browsers, browsers on alternative devices (cell phones, PDAs, game consoles, etc.), and even browsers that haven’t been imagined yet and that will show up on the devices that reach the public in 2009. Whether to exclude a browser is not a choice we have to make.

Instead, we need to consider what “support” actually means. In the past, people have taken “support” to mean “everybody gets the same thing.” Support does not mean that everybody gets the same thing. Expecting two users using different browser software to have an identical experience fails to embrace or acknowledge the heterogeneous essence of the Web. In fact, requiring the same experience for all users creates an artificial barrier to participation. Availability and accessibility of content should be our key priority.

If we support Internet Explorer 6 and Netscape 4, then the site will look virtually identical in both browsers—and so on. Thus, web designers and developers learned to use a “lowest common denominator” approach, using only the features of XHTML, CSS, JavaScript, and so forth that worked well in the oldest, poorest browser they’d chosen to support. But this thinking is flawed in that it offers benefits to no one.

Consider television. At the core: TV distributes information. A hand-cranked emergency radio is capable of receiving television audio transmissions. It would be counterproductive to prevent access to this content, even though it’s a fringe experience.

Some viewers still have black-and-white televisions. Broadcasting only in black-and-white the “lowest common denominator” approach—ensures a shared experience but benefits no one. Excluding the black-and-white television owners—the “you must be this tall to ride” approach—provides no benefit either.

An appropriate support strategy allows every user to consume as much visual and interactive richness as their environment can support. This approach—commonly referred to as progressive enhancement—builds a rich experience on top of an accessible core, without compromising that core.

Nate Koechley — A Senior Web Developer at Yahoo!

Broadcast television offers full color. It offers Dolby Pro Logic surround sound. It offers high-definition resolution and clarity. If your television supports these technologies, you get the richest TV experience possible. If it doesn’t, your experience will not be enhanced—but you will still get the core content of the television program. This is very much the same approach the web standards movement applies to the Web.

All browsers, no matter what device they’re on, how old they are, or how technologically inferior they are, ought to get the core content of the page (in most cases, this means text, images, etc.). The latest and greatest browser will get the richest experience. Everything else will be somewhere in between.

Development Browser

Deciding which web browser you will use as you develop CSS-based sites is a significant choice. Although different schools of thought exist, most web designers agree that developing in a solid, reliable, standards-compliant browser (such as Firefox or Safari) is best. This lets you focus on doing things the “right” way through most of your development. Then, you can go back after the fact and provide workarounds for less-ideal browsers (such as Internet Explorer). Trying to develop to the lesser browsers as you go tends to result in more workarounds than necessary and code that is less clean.

Your mileage may vary, but we recommend using Firefox as your primary development browser, not only because of its great standards support, but also because of the many great extensions available for web developers.

Jordan Walker

I think we as web developers are quick to introduce new technology as it emerges. I do not think that the rest of the population is so quick to change from their comforts. IE 6 is a dead dinosaur that needs to be carried off, but so many people still use.


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