Ignoring the 10%

Browser support and cross-browser testing is a tricky subject. As a veteran of the browser wars I’ve seen a number of browsers dominate for a while then tail off as a new generation invariably comes through. In each generation we as web developers look to be in a better place but are always seem to be held back by the legacy of previous generations.

Back in the early 2000’s there were basically two browsers of note (I am deliberately generalising here and am well aware there were more than two browsers) IE6 and Netscape, roughly speaking it was a 90/10 split. IE6 was the ground breaking browser, way better then Netscape, and it was believe me. As a developer you spent most of your time developing to IE6 well aware of the fact it probably broke a bit in Netscape. Never a comfortable situation but it did allow you to take advantage of the better features in IE6 which seemed a good compromise.

Fast forward a few years and the next chapter in the browser wars, the standards movement. Raising Microsoft out of their slumber it pushed the web forward, IE7 was awful, IE6 the bane of developers lives with IE8 and Firefox the leading lights. It was bad for a few years but we moved forward, slowly but surely we started leaving behind IE6, sure there was still 10% of people using it but sacrificing these users for the good of the 90% was acceptable.

And now we are in modern times, Chrome has emerged as the new darling of browsers, IE9/10 makes it again one of the contenders, Firefox is still in the mix and everywhere mobile is the new must support platform. And then there is IE8… Yep you guessed it, representing about 10% of your users.

Given the importance being placed on mobile as a platform, and the fact that most mobile/tablet computers have fairly good support for modern standards is it time to sacrifice the 10% again. Some big sites and big players such as Google have already signalled the end of IE8, is it time for this to become the norm? IE8 usage will only drop and mobile looks set to increase, in my eyes the time is now…

What Use is a Modern Browser?

For people who thought the browser wars were over, the message coming out of the big 5 vendors is that it is well and truly alive. With Google releasing a new major version of its browser Chrome every 6 weeks, and having already surpassed IE in version number, and major releases for both Microsoft and Mozilla coming soon we are once again deep in the midst of a browser war.

Or so the vendors would have you believe if you follow what they have to say. First Microsoft comes out and says their upcoming browser IE9 has the best HTML5 features – note here the best not the most – then a Mozilla evangelist calls foul and says what about all the features it is missing? I’m sure their are many developers out there who nodded their head in agreement, sadly I wasn’t one of them. I was going to write about how pointless this propaganda war was when Faruk Ateş (Author of Modernizr) wrote almost exactly what I was thinking, it is therefore well worth a read.

As a developer I would be extremely happy if IE9 was indeed supporting all of the current HTML spec, and indeed if all the other browser vendors did the same, but even if they did who’d really give a fuck? Not most users, and probably not most developers, because you can’t use these features, or they are overkill for all but a small proportion of web sites. Here’s what is more important in my eyes, the best browser out there, the most modern, is Chrome, and not because of its lightning fast JavaScript engine, or its implementation of SVG. The killer feature for me as a developer is that it auto updates to the latest version, in the background. That means that at any given time you can be fairly certain what a user who is running Chrome can use, and therefore what you can use as well. The following chart shows what a success this strategy is, but just compare it to the other browsers.

Sure there are situations where an auto update can be bad, for enterprises being the best example, but for the vast majority of users out there, who don’t even get what a browser is, it is practically essential. Security updates can be applied automatically keeping the average joe six-pack safe. IE9 looks to have some excellent new security features, excellent but whats the point if the very people it is supposed to protect don’t install it, cause they are scared to break their computer? Take this decision out of their hands as Google have, and leave auto-update as an option to turn off for the savvy, or IT admins.

A byproduct of this for us developers is that if feature a isn’t available, but due in the next iteration, we can wait and when it is available we can be safe in the knowledge it will be available to us. Instead we are left saying if only IE9 had drag and drop just like Firefox 4, when in reality even if it did all the people using Firefox haven’t upgraded from 3.6 so don’t have it anyway.

IE9 looks good, and I’m sure down the line IE10 will be even better, but it matters not to the developers, cause we can’t use all the great new features in the wild. Please browser vendors, take a look at the Chrome model, iterate fast, update immediately, and then perhaps we can push the web forward.