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Where does your website go when you aren’t looking? The importance of cross-browser compatibility

Your website looks great, doesn’t it? What does the rest of the world see though? When your back is turned and your website is out running wild through the data pipes that are the internet, does it still look great?

Maybe you browse the web using Internet Explorer, or Firefox, perhaps Safari or Opera, but how many browsers are there really and how does your website look to someone using a different browser to you?

If your website hasn’t been designed with cross-browser compatibility in mind and tested in a variety of browsers, there is a good chance that your website won’t look right in other browsers.

The browsers that are currently the most used on the internet (from Hitslink) are:

  1. Microsoft Internet Explorer 7.0 – 47.10%
  2. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 – 25.74%
  3. Firefox – 18.69%
  4. Safari – 5.33%
  5. Opera – 0.67%

The World Wide Web Consortium gives slightly different statistics:

  1. Firefox – 42.6%
  2. Microsoft Internet Explorer 7.0 – 26.4%
  3. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 – 25.3%
  4. Safari – 2.5%
  5. Opera – 1.9%

Of course, these are only the top 5 browsers, there are hundreds of other browsers, not to mention increasing usage of mobile phone browsers like Opera Mobile, Internet Explorer Mobile and Safari Mobile.

If we just consider the above 5 browsers, then there are at least 5 different ways that the same website could be displayed, each one could display a website, even just slightly different to another browser.

Of the above 5 browsers, Firefox, Safari and Opera are the most standards compliant, that is, if the website is designed to be compliant with web standards defined by the World Wide Web Consortium, then these 3 browsers should all render the website pretty much the same.

For this reason, at TerraMedia, we design all websites in Firefox first since it has the largest market share of these 3, then we test in Safari and Opera to ensure consistency in how the page looks between these browsers. Most of the time, everything will appear the same, however, there will be the occasional discrepancy. Even something that may seem small can drastically change a website, so this testing and correction is extremely important.

After these 3 browsers are determined to be the same, we then move on to Internet Explorer 7.0. Internet Explorer 7.0 is reasonably standards compliant, compared to Internet Explorer 6.0 anyway. There is a lot of work that still needs to be done in Internet Explorer to get it to the same level of standards compliance as the other browsers though. Internet Explorer 7.0 will often be fairly similar to our initial design, but with a few glitches here and there, usually to do with distances and measurements. Chances are usually high that Internet Explorer 6.0 will have the same problems as Internet Explorer 7.0, but magnified and more of them. So we do Internet Explorer 7.0 first as once the problems are fixed here, the same problems should be fixed or mostly fixed in Internet Explorer 6.0.

Now we move on to Internet Explorer 6.0. This browser has been around for quite a long time now and will make most modern designers shudder at the thought of designing for it simply because it is so far from being standards compliant that it is almost impossible to measure. In addition to this, it has problems displaying an image format that nowadays has become a very important part of web design, that is 24-bit transparent PNG images. These images have an alpha channel, meaning they can be semi-transparent, so you can partially see through them, like looking through fog for example. These are often used to put shadows on parts of many modern websites. Unfortunately, as long as it maintains a hold on so much of the browser market share, it is important to ensure that websites will work correctly in it.

To deal with Internet Explorer 6.0, we take the same approach as all of the other browsers, however, from when we first start designing, even for Firefox, we keep Internet Explorer 6.0 in mind. We do this so that we can try to avoid using 24-bit PNG’s as much as possible, and if they are unavoidable, then we have to force Internet Explorer 6.0 to load them through Javascript first so that they are displayed correctly, this does, unfortunately, slow download times slightly. Even once we have fixed the vast majority of problems in Internet Explorer 6.0, there is still a great deal of modern functionality it simply does not support. So we then try to figure out another way to do it in Internet Explorer 6.0, or we set it up so that it degrades gracefully. In other words, it won’t quite look the same as the newer browsers, but it will still look good and won’t break or prevent users from accessing parts of your website. Again, things like this are taken into consideration from the very start so that you can decide whether or not you want to include functionality that Internet Explorer 6.0 won’t be able to display or if you even want to worry about Internet Explorer 6.0 at all.

Internet Explorer 8.0 is due to be released soon and is looking to be more standards compliant then it’s predecessors. Hopefully we will see it grow and Internet Explorer 6.0 disappear, but of course, this will no doubt take a long time.

The hundreds of other browsers available have such a small market share and are often based on the same rendering engine as Firefox or Opera and Safari, that we generally do not test in them, we do however run tests on Browsershots in many of the less common browsers that they have available. This gives us an idea of whether or not there are any flaws that should be corrected in these smaller browsers. You can then decide if you would like us to go ahead and correct these problems or not.

You can be sure that when we design your website, it will be fully cross-browser compatible and will work just the way you want it to, even when you aren’t looking.

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