When Netscape was founded in 1994 browser compatibility was simple. One product had well over 90 percent of the market. If your web efforts looked good and worked well for Netscape on a PC it was all good. Then Microsoft launched IE (Internet Explorer) and bundled it for free in its operating systems. Netscape went away. In 2002 if your web efforts looked good and worked well for IE on a PC it was all good. IE had over 95% of
the web browser market.
The Battle of the Browsers
To date, there are four major web browsers for
computers and mobile browsers to boot.
No major browser currently has more than a 35% market share. A great and largely silent battle for web browser dominance has fractured the market for that software. Combined with the fact that people browse the Internet on an ever widening range of devices and operating systems including little tiny screens (Smartphones) and it is more complicated than ever for your web efforts to look good and to work well.
How important is compatibility among browsers and devices? It really depends on what you're trying to accomplish. If you have a basic web presence (web site) then you need to make sure it renders (looks) good viewed on a PC, Mac and portable devices from Android and Apple. You will need to focus on four principle browsers, Internet Explorer (Microsoft), Safari (Apple), Firefox (Open Source) and Chrome (Google). In your testing you need to have all four browsers on your computers for testing. There are literally dozens of minor additional browsers out there. Forget about the rest. Chances are if the "big four" browsers work well then all the others will be fine but maybe with some minor visual issues.
There are some technologies you'll probably want to avoid and use alternatives for. A popular technology for advertisers and creative types is Adobe Flash. With a Flash player loaded into a browser a web site can look like a computer game, render visuals beautifully and allow for all sorts of eye grabbing special effects (floating ads on a homepage). But Flash is not supported by Apple - on purpose. So all the flash efforts, almost without exclusion, will be completely invisible to people using Mac computers and Apple tablets, Apple cell phones and Apple hand
helds. Apple has such a large percentage of the tablet and hand held market that unfortunately I recommend not
using Flash technology at all if you think tablets and hand helds are important to you. There are alternative technologies like HTML 5 which are supposed to be "flash like" and work with most every browser but be careful since that technology is in the adoption phase and is in flux. If you offer a flash site you'll probably end up creating a non-flash alternative for Apple users. This greatly increases both development and maintenance expenses.
Some technologies will be disrupted by the browser battles. For example, Joomla is a somewhat popular freeware content management tool. It's useful for lots of people contributing to the production of dynamic content sites, i.e. magazines online, etc. Unfortunately the latest browsers have some major incompatibilities with backend scripts. So Internet Explorer 8 if fine but upgrade to Internet Explorer 9 and you'll find you can't publish new Joomla articles in the back end functions. Since Joomla is freeware there are many volunteer programmers who will work on identified issues but it will take awhile. For those technologies you pay for you will experience issues but you will most likely find they get "fixed" much more quickly. I love freeware technology but be careful because the pace of change with the battle of the browsers is unlikely to slow down. Sometimes paying upfront and on-going saves time, money and hassle in the long run.
Retesting for Browser Version Changes is Critical
You have to retest with every new major browser release. I hate to write this but you really must plan to check minimally every three months to see if a major change or update has occurred with one of the new browsers. With that new browser release you need to recheck all the functions on your web efforts. Web sites today, whether it is all custom code or use of third party hosted solutions, are a complex mish mash of code that works with today's browsers. Unfortunately the browser changes to increase rendering speed, etc. will often "break" your web efforts. This can be minor like a slight shift in how your web effort appears or it can be major like it breaks a critical function or content that is not visible. Don't forget about back end, administrator only functions. These functions often get overlooked until you need to change something, usually on a deadline, and they just flat out don't work. You click the submit button and nothing happens.
Don't Forget "Devices"
The largest wholesale shift in computing is the move away from computers to tablets and hand held devices. The computer is not dead by any means. This is especially true for business users. Probably until voice recognition is perfected (which will probably never happen) everyone will need a keyboard and this will protect the computer's place in business and households for decades. But more time for web browsing is shifting from computers to tablets and hand held devices. This trend is powerful and accelerating.
No business can afford to ignore computer alternatives. Leaving your web efforts to be exactly the same for hand helds as it is for computers is a major mistake. The big challenge is screen size. Hand helds have far smaller screens. Something rendered beautifully with perfect functions on a computer can be next to impossible to use on a hand held device. A major secondary challenge is many hand held devices are using cellular data networks which are quite limited in data download speeds. Your site can take "forever" to download. People want instant gratification so this can be a major turn off and lead to user abandonment.
How to Deal with Hand Held Devices
The best way deal with hand held devices is to look at this as a piece to your web effort strategies that is off to the side. It is an absolute mistake to ignore them, absolutely. But at this point there are few companies I believe that should focus on hand held devices to exclusion of the computer. If your web efforts are new then you should have the developers design with hand helds in mind. This can be done in a couple of ways.
- They can write code which detects what browser and what device the user has and based on that they can point the user to different versions of your web efforts.
- They can create design templates for computers and for hand held devices in which the content (text, photos, etc.) is interchangeable. This means it will be viewed differently but nothing will be missing.
- They can use code that is interoperable between everything. Much of the application code which is the code that makes your pages do something (like enter an order, pull up order status, etc.) can be written in a way to make it largely reusable regardless of how the data is accessed by the user.
- They can use files with smaller data sizes for hand helds. If someone is using a cellular network then they will get a low resolution image or no background image which will speed up the overall rendering of your web page.
- You can create an "app". If you have elaborate or complex functions or your users will be intolerable of any delay in displaying a web page then you can create apps for hand held devices. An app is NOT browser based. So you are basically avoiding hand held browsers all together. Because most of the visual display already is preloaded as software on the hand held device the app comes up in a matter of seconds. It then uses the data connection to pull information off of online servers (unless the data is stored on the device). This opens a whole new world of possibilities but it is largely its own development effort and overall is disconnected from your web efforts at that point.
Don't be dismayed by all the changes that rapidly move on the web. The change can be opportunities for you to differentiate yourself and your business. Consider the changing nature of the Internet upfront in your planning and make sure to "check in" with changes on a regular basis and make sure you're keeping up with what is significantly new.