Black Sheep of the Browser World

Album Cover: Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace

"Time will turn us into statues, eventually."
Foo Fighters / Statues

Posted on August 20, 2006 11:11 AM in Browsers
Warning: This blog entry was written two or more years ago. Therefore, it may contain broken links, out-dated or misleading content, or information that is just plain wrong. Please read on with caution.

Anyone who has developed websites for multiple browsers (and especially multiple browser versions) knows that it can be a Pandora's Box of pain and suffering. However, it pays off in that you can sleep peacefully at night knowing that a majority of your site's visitors have no problem getting at the content you so desperately want them to see.

It really strikes me as odd how often I see things like the following in online reviews of new web applications (emphasis mine):

Writely is collaboration friendly, can import Word documents, save to PDF, OpenOffice, Rich Text Format and zip. The system autosaves your documents every 10 seconds and offers online storage. Google Accounts will soon be used for signing in. Writely works on Mozilla based browsers and IE only.

Imagine if when Porsche announced the 2006 Porsche Cayman S they had said that the car delivers 295 horsepower, 255 lb-ft. of torque, goes from 0 to 60 in just over 5 seconds, and has a top speed of 171 miles per hour but will only run on the freeway.

I'd say that's pretty analogous.

Granted, if your web application has all the bells-and-whistles that Writely offers, you've got more of an excuse as to why you don't support the black sheep of the browser world, Opera and Safari (because Javascript and Ajax behavior can often be harder to wrangle than the behavior of XHTML in various browsers). However, at the same time you've proven that you know how to get the job done in terms of implementing impressive technological feats, so why not pay attention to the finer details and give everybody a similar experience?

In the old days, when IE was market share king and the "other" browsers had their miniscule niches, this kind of behavior was more excusable (but still frustrating). Now Firefox is a true contender, Opera can hold its own against Firefox, and Safari is on the cutting-edge of browser development and web standards support.

Supporting two (or even worse, one) of the four just isn't excusable anymore. Especially if you've already shown you've got mad web development skills.


Ian Clifton on August 21, 2006 at 8:36 AM:

They actually do support Firefox, so that combined with IE5.5+ should reach ~95% of their audience. Their claim as to why Safari isn't supported:

"Writely doesn't run well in Safari because Safari doesn't fully support design mode. Design mode enables a user to toggle between viewing and editing HTML on a single page. We hope that design mode is supported by a future version of Safari; in the meantime, you may want to try another browser."

I'm sure Opera has the same shortcoming. Obviously, they could create work-arounds, but the question then becomes developer time vs. cost benefit (how much is that ~5% worth?). At least OSX users can still use Writely via FF, but Safari support would definitely be nice.


Bernie Zimmermann on August 21, 2006 at 8:27 PM:

Thanks for the additional information, Ian. I was aware that they supported Firefox (and other Mozilla-based browsers), but I was unaware of what their actual reasons were for neglecting to support Opera and Safari.

After hearing what you've said, I'll give the Writely team the benefit of the doubt, but it doesn't take any steam away from my argument that far too many web developers take shortcuts when not doing so would probably require very little extra effort.


Ryan on August 21, 2006 at 8:50 PM:

I think a more appropriate comparison would be to say that the above Porsche works on "all paved roads." For most people (say, 95%) this is good enough, and they don't care that on some dirt or gravel roads, the car doesn't work very well. I think its perfectly legitimate to make a car that doesn't drive well (or at all) on substandard roads, if its performance is great on paved roads. Say, this reminds me of a whole class of cars...

Similarly, it is also fine -- in most cases -- to make a web application that only works on the big two. Note that I say web application, and not web site. A company's site that doesn't work on all applications is dumb. But saying that a web developer should make their application work for 4 browsers is like saying that a developer should make their program work on 4 platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux, Toaster? [it's shiney like Safari!] )... This might be a good idea, but it also might be a bad idea, depending on the goals of the developer. Maybe features that 95% can use are more important than 5% using features that are already there. Then it is a judgement call, and there is no one correct answer.


Sean on August 22, 2006 at 1:16 PM:

I have to agree with Ryan -- I think there is a difference between an online application, and website with slightly different rules applying to each. And while Writely doesn't support all browsers, it supports all OSs. That's the great thing about ensuring your site is Firefox friendly -- cause FF is available on all platforms, so *technically* you're not leaving anyone out.


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