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17 June 2013

Update your browser

A 'browser' is a program used to view websites on the Internet. Like all other programs - other software - on your computer, it is installed, can be upgraded to newer versions, and can be uninstalled. Just as with all software, there is competition in the marketplace from a variety of browser vendors, each with different features and functionality, all vying for market dominance. Ultimately they all achieve the same thing - they take the code written by developers and present it on screen to you in an interactive, visual format.

Unless you are in the web industry, it is likely you don't know, or care, about browsers, let alone which one you are using. A browser is a tool you use to view what you want online; a means to an end. Asking a user to care about browsers is like asking a child to care about what brand television they have; the child doesn't care about anything other than being able to watch Clone Wars.

And why should they care whether they're watching it through a Samsung or a Sony? It makes no difference to their viewing experience. The same can be said for web browsers; why should a regular user care about what they're using to view their favourite websites through?

 

Why care about browsers?

Developers and power-users of the Internet seem to harp on and argue about which browser to use. They will push their choice on their friends and families. They have devout loyalty to the point of dogma for a piece of software that many believe doesn't actually change anything about their experience.

 

WHY?

If we stick with the television analogy for a moment, choosing a different browser isn't like choosing a particular brand of television, but an age of television set.  Ask a child whether they want to watch Clone Wars on grandma's old, black-and-white analogue television or on the new digital flat-screen in the lounge room - they will choose the latter. It has a better picture quality, it's in colour and the audio is surround sound; all factors contributing to an overall better experience.

If a child isn't thinking about these things (and what child would?), then they will choose the latter simply because it is newer, and newer is better, right? "Newer" in the context of technology generally means better, because anything wrong with the previous model is enhanced or fixed in newer iterations.  Furthermore, grandma's old black-and-white TV won't work for much longer, because the television industry is phasing out the analogue channels in favour of digital.

Both television sets achieve the same end, though; allowing you to view the TV program, but the viewing experience is altered based on which tool you view it through. The newer one is richly immersive, making for a higher level of enjoyment.

The same can be said for browsers, and this is precisely why developers are so adamant about you upgrading yours; because we want your experiences on the Internet to be as rich and fulfilling as possible. We love the web and we want others to enjoy it like we do.

 

What's so different about browsers?

The main desktop browsers in the market today are Chrome (developed by Google), Firefox (developed by Mozilla), Safari (developed by Apple) and Internet Explorer (developed by Microsoft). Each browser has various versions in circulation. Each browser and version compiles code in slightly different ways, which web developers account for when coding a website.

 

The problem, in pictures

Because browsers interpret code in slightly different ways, the decisions a developer makes on how to build each and every object that appears on a website is managed by the rules they know will, and won't, be interpreted similarly.  

Take this example of the preview design element; a box with some content and images and a blue "featured" ribbon (a screenshot of the Photoshop design):

 For modern browsers, the code used is more elegant than older browsers, and uses more of the browsers ability to interpret code. The results in modern browsers are follows:

 

the-modern-versions.png

 

It doesn't take very long to code, either. So, job done, right?

Nope. What about people using older versions of browsers?

The worldwide browser usage statistics for January 2013 - February 2013 indicate the following browsers and versions are in use (at time of writing, from netmarketshare.com). 

 

stats.png

 

The important thing to note is that a staggering 29% of people - over a quarter of all users - are browsing the Internet through versions of Internet Explorer older than version 9. 

Using the television analogy; there are a quarter of users who will be watching Clone Wars through a black and white television set.

The web developer looks at these statistics and realises this is a figure that cannot be ignored. So, the webpage is opened and tested first in Internet Explorer 8, with the following result:

 

ie8.png

 

I would like to highlight that this is the exact same webpage viewed in Internet Explorer 8 as was viewed in Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer 9. Because Internet Explorer 8 has a different way of compiling HTML and CSS, it renders almost completely differently.

Compromises during development must be made. If over a quarter of people are going to be viewing this website through a browser that displays it as above (or worse), we have problems. So we start 'bloating' the code; adding extra lines of code and JavaScript, and extra images if needs be, to account for the old browser's interpretation of the site. While making browser adjustments, the web developer must also continually re-check in modern browsers, to make sure something done to make an old browser look correct doesn't break anything in the modern browsers.

If we go further back than Internet Explorer 8, things get even worse. According to the previously cited statistics, Internet Explorer version 6 makes up over 6% of the global market. If this figure is important to us, we must account for it. If I open our simple panel in Internet Explorer 6, I get the following. 

 

ie6.png

 

When a developer is instructed to account for very old versions of browsers, it restricts what they are able to achieve with code, and it bloats a project - bloat which makes the whole website slower and less elegant. But a developer must build for the weakest browser required. If we use the television analogy again, telling a developer to build for an old browser is like telling the child they can watch Clone Wars on the new flat-screen, but only at the quality grandma's black-and-white television delivers it in.

It's frustrating, and it feels pointless. Why have this beautiful, digital flat screen at all when we can't actually use it to its full potential?

But unlike the television set analogy, upgrading to a newer, faster, more modern tool to browse websites in is absolutely, 100% free. 

 

Ok, ok, I get it. What software should I use to view websites?

My opinion: Google Chrome. It is fast and automatically updates to the latest version. I love it. Get it here: google.com/chrome.

If you don't like Chrome, then try Mozilla Firefox. Get it here: getfirefox.com.

If you have to use either Safari (the default browser of Mac OS) or Internet Explorer (the default browser for Windows), then make sure they are updated to the latest versions. Internet Explorer is currently on version 10 (available here or through Windows update), and the latest version of Safari can be downloaded here or via Apple Software Update.

 

What about security?

If you're not convinced you should change your browser purely for your viewing/browsing pleasure, consider it for the security reasons. I don't want to go into depth about security flaws in old browsers here (a topic worth a separate blog post itself), so I'll be brief: upgrades to browser versions not only include different ways to interpret code, but also fixes to security flaws and vulnerabilities discovered during the life of the previous browser version. If you are using an old version of a browser, you are leaving yourself open to the flaws and vulnerabilities and bugs of that version.


So, why not upgrade your browser?

Keeping your browser up to date ensures that you are viewing websites in the fastest and safest manner possible, and will allow you to experience the full potential of today's web technology. The more users we can encourage to upgrade their browser, the more often developers can use the fastest, cleanest code to generate the elements on the website.

This is one of the major reasons anyone who is Internet-savvy will try make you change your browser to a more modern one. New browsers make the web a better place.

If you are using an old browser, please upgrade. Not for me - for yourself.


Haydon
AUTHOR

Haydon

UI Development Manager
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