Journal: News & Comment

Thursday, July 17, 2003
# 10:12:00 AM:

Complaining in the wrong direction

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Complaints about websites that don't work with web browsers other than Internet Explorer on Windows are worthwhile making—being able to use complex websites with other browsers, such as Safari on the Mac, is of key importance to the viability of anything other than IE and Windows. But many of us are complaining in the wrong direction: to Apple and other browser makers, not to website developers, who are often largely to blame.

The problem is one of poor programming on the websites, and is not generally something Apple (or any other browser maker) can do much about. For instance, the real estate agent above writes:

Spoofing, i.e. causing your browser to pretend to be MSIE 6.0 for Windows accomplishes nothing at all. You may very well be able to log in, set up searches, but in an increasing number of cases, no data will be returned.

There is no legitimate technical reason why this should be the case. The beauty of the Web is that it's based on open standards that anyone can support. If we as customers allow websites providing us with services to "get by" with narrow browser support that only works on certain platforms, that spells the long-term death of the Web as a useful medium, and makes life difficult for users and developers.

There's been a good discussion recently on the topic from developers Tim Bray and Dave Winer:

A key excerpt:

[...] all application interfaces used to be "richer environments," and the users abandoned them by the millions, in favor of the browser, the moment they got a chance [...] It was so wonderful when the browser interfaces came on; the vendors had to discard all those stupid sliders and cascaded menus and eight-way toggles, and only leave the stuff that mattered.

The simplicity and compatibility of the Web is why it's been a success. Apple is doing a good job (though of course there is room for improvement) in making Safari an excellent Internet-friendly browser, handling HTML, Cascading Style Sheets, JavaScript, and other standards, and it is perfectly possible to write good web-based applications using those standards.

However, programmers for some sites in real estate, online banking, and many other industries continue to assume that IE Windows is all anyone uses, and they program and test only on that combination. That's dangerous for them, though: what are they going to do when increasing numbers of their users demand access using wireless PDAs or cell phones, or any of the increasing variety of other web-enabled devices that aren't desktop or laptop PCs running Windows? Never mind Macs!

We cannot expect Apple (or open-source programmers) to make Safari (or Mozilla) behave like Windows IE for websites that code only for that browser. That's like asking Apple and open-source developers to make the Mac OS and Linux just like Windows, so all Windows programs will run on them. A nice idea in the abstract, perhaps, but pointless and impossible in real life. And Windows IE is a moving target anyway, with the way it works changing with each revision, and sometimes each service pack.

Here's another way to look at it: if Microsoft itself can't make IE for Mac support some websites that have been programmed to work only with IE for Windows, how can we expect anyone else to do so?

What all savvy Web users—whether on Mac, Windows, Linux, Palm, Symbian, or some other platform—need to do is prod developers of both browsers and websites to support Internet standards, since in the end it will be easier for developers and users to make things work that way.

If browsers and sites both support standards properly, most applications will Just Work. And if one doesn't, the solution is to make either the browser or the application support the standards better, not to play whack-a-mole with each other trying to match features.

It's no longer good enough for a website team to eschew standards and develop for Windows IE, and only then try to shoehorn the code into working with Netscape, or Mozilla, or OmniWeb, or Safari, or iCab, or your cell phone. Nor should browser developers try to follow every bob and weave (and bug!) in the current feature set of Windows IE. They'll all be chasing their tails forever. I know: I worked on websites at the height of the browser wars in the late '90s, and it was neither fun nor pretty to try to get a site to work in just two browsers, never mind five or seven or twenty.

For example, if your bank as an online service that only works on Internet Explorer under Windows, tell them that the site isn't standards-compliant and you'd like to be able to use it with another browser. If they refuse, you can tell them it's not that hard to switch banks—because if you're a Mac user, your bank is, in effect, telling you to go spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a new computer just to manage your own money.

I'm not saying Apple has no work to do on Safari, for instance—its standards support and feature set are far from perfect. But we need to complain about the right things to the right people.


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