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.