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Chapter 1. Designing for a Variety of Browsers

Most web authors agree that the biggest challenge (and headache!) in web design is dealing with the variety of browsers and platforms. While the majority of HTML elements are reliably rendered in most browsers, each browser has its own quirks when it comes to implementation of HTML and scripting elements.

Features and capabilities improve with each new major browser release, but that doesn't mean the older versions just go away. The general public tends not to keep up with the latest and greatest -- many are content with what they are given, and others may be using the computers of a company or institution that chooses a browser for them. The varying functionality of browsers has a strong impact on how you author your site, that is, which web technologies you can safely use to make your site work.

How do you design web pages that are aesthetically and technically intriguing without alienating those in your audience with older browsers? Does a page that is designed to be functional on all browsers necessarily need to be boring? Is it possible to please everyone? And if not, where do you draw the line? How many past versions do you need to cater to with your designs?

There is no absolute rule here. While it's important to make your content accessible to the greatest number of users, experimentation and the real-world implementation of emerging technologies is equally important to keep the medium pushing forward. The key to making appropriate design decisions lies in understanding your audience and considering how your site is going to be used.

This chapter provides background information, statistics, and current wisdom from professional web designers that may help you make some of these decisions. It begins with an introduction to the most common browsers in use today, their usage statistics, and supported features. After describing the browser landscape, it discusses various design strategies for coping with browser difference and, finally, what's being done in the industry to set things straight again.

1.1. Browsers

Before you can develop a strategy for addressing various browser capabilities, it is useful to have a general knowledge of the browsers that are out there. While web browsing clients are increasingly being built into small-display devices such as PDAs, telephones, and even car dashboards, this chapter focuses on the traditional graphical computer-based browsers that developers generally keep in mind. The particular needs of handheld devices are discussed further in Chapter 32, "WAP and WML".

1.1.1. The "Big Two"

The browser market is dominated by two major browsers: Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. As of this writing, Internet Explorer is in Version 5.5 for Windows (5.0 for Macintosh) and the Navigator browser is one component of Netscape 6 (they did not release a Version 5). Together, the "Big Two," including their collective past versions, account for over 95% of browser use today.

Since 1994, these two contenders have battled it out for market dominance. Their early struggle to be cooler than the next guy has resulted in a collection of proprietary HTML tags and incompatible implementations of new technologies (JavaScript, Cascading Style Sheets, and most notoriously Dynamic HTML). On the positive side, the competition between Netscape and Microsoft has also led to the rapid advancement of the medium as a whole.

Netscape publishes information for developers at http://developer.netscape.com.Information about the Netscape 6 release can be found at http://home.netscape.com/browsers/6/index.html.

For information on designing for Internet Explorer, visit Microsoft's Internet Explorer Developer Center (part of its MSDN Online developer's network) at http://msdn.microsoft.com/ie/default.asp. Additional information is available on the Microsoft product pages at http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/ (for Windows) and http://www.microsoft.com/mac/products/ie/ (for Macintosh).

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Although Netscape's browsing component is still officially called Navigator, Netscape seems to be downplaying "Navigator" and promoting its latest product release simply as Netscape 6. Because this is the title that has stuck with the industry, this book refers to "Netscape 6," but uses "Navigator" for previous releases.

1.1.2. Other Browsers

Most web authors base their designs on the functionality of Navigator and Internet Explorer on Windows systems, since they claim the lion's share of the market; however, there are a number of other browsers you may choose to take into consideration.

1.1.2.2. America Online

America Online subscribers use a variety of Internet Explorer browsers, ranging from Version 2 to 5.5 (the most current as of this writing). The browser version number is not necessarily tied to the AOL release, as noted in this excerpt from AOL's developer site:

Beginning with Windows AOL 3.0 (32-bit), theAOL client does not have a browser embedded, but instead uses the Internet Explorer browser the user already has installed within their system. On the Mac and 16-bit Windows clients, theAOL client containsvarious versions of Internet Explorer embedded directly within the client, andindependent of the versionof Internet Explorer installed outside AOL in the system. Therefore, browser compatibility is mostly independent ofany specific AOL version.

As of this writing, approximately 80% of AOL users view the Web on Windows machines using Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher. While this is encouraging news, the reality is that Internet Explorer's functionality is limited somewhat when used in conjunction with the AOL client. This is due to the way the specific AOL clients interact with the browser and AOL's reliance on proxy servers and image compression techniques. Many web designers have been horrified to see their site design (which works perfectly in all the major browsers) once it's been run through the AOL system.

Fortunately, AOL publishes a site specifically for web developers who want their sites to be accessible and attractive to AOL users. Of particular use is the browser chart, which provides a specific listing of each of its browsers (by release and platform), the technologies and features supported, and a breakdown in percentage of users for each browser. It also provides a style guide for optimizing web pages for its newly released AOLTV set-top browsing device.

AOL's web developer site can be found at http://webmaster.info.aol.com.



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