Pelland Blog

Backward Compatibility and Browser Testing

July 22nd, 2010

In the course of building websites for our clients, we are always trying to build sites that are graphically stimulating and meet the standards of the current crop of browsers. Probably the biggest challenge has been keeping up with the evolution of Internet Explorer in recent years, more standards compliant than ever in the latest version, Internet Explorer 8. Nonetheless, we have typically found ourselves testing for Internet Explorer and “everything else”. The current browsers used for testing on my computer are Internet Explorer 8.0.7600.16385, Firefox 3.6.7 (just updated last night), Google Chrome 5.0.375.99, Opera 10.6.0 (3445), and Safari 5.0 (7533.16), all running under Windows 7 Pro.

I am amazed at how often I will look at somebody’s website, either homemade or built by a careless webmaster or simply not updated to meet current standards, and think, “This business has no idea what their site looks like in Internet Explorer 8 (or, conversely, Firefox).” Some people use Firefox and have never viewed their site in Internet Explorer, or use an older version of Internet Explorer and have never seen their site in Internet Explorer 8. Others might be running Macs and have not seen how their site appears to the vast majority of visitors on the Windows platform. In other instances, sites have been built to resize to a percentage of available pixel width on the viewer’s monitor … a true formula for disaster, with text and graphics reflowing out of control. In many cases, there would be some rude awakenings. I wonder if people know how their sites appear on a large monitor with a high screen resolution, and you cannot afford to ignore visitors to your site running on a variety of other platforms, from Linux to iPhones.

It is time for a reality check. Using one of our high traffic website’s Google Analytics statistics for the past 30 days, 71.35% of visitors are using Internet Explorer, 16.11% are using Firefox, 7.74% are using Safari, 3.85% are using Chrome, and 0.16% are using Opera, but that is only half of the story. What we have discovered is that, in an attempt to build sites that are compatible with the latest browser versions, without careful testing, it is easy to have a site that looks fine in Internet Explorer 8, but looks bad in Internet Explorer 7 and even worse in Internet Explorer 6. Unlike Firefox, which goes out of its way to encourage users to quickly and easily update to the latest release, many users are running older versions of Internet Explorer, despite the serious security implications involved. Using the same site’s Google Analytics stats, Internet Explorer users break down as follows: 65.88% are using Internet Explorer 8, 24.27% are using Internet Explorer 7, and 9.85% are still using Internet Explorer 6!

If your site looks gorgeous on your monitor, I would suggest that you do not sit back on your laurels and presume that everyone else is enjoying the same experience. You need to do some testing and, if necessary, some reverse engineering in order to insure backward compatibility with older browsers. Keep in mind that, under our statistics, approximately 25% of current visitors to your site are likely to be using an OLD version of Internet Explorer … old versions that may not support such commonly used features as layers and transparency.

If you do not have the benefit of a computer with older browsers installed on a test platform, there are some free online tools that will help you to identify browser compatibility problems. I recommend the following:
Browser Shots will allow you to generate screen shots of any URL in your choices from over 75 browser variations on the Windows, Linux, and Mac platforms.
IE NetRenderer is a somewhat faster and more streamlined tool that will allow you to check a page in Internet Explorer 8, 7, 6 or 5.5. It will allow you to quickly identify any problems.

Once you have identified problems, then you can ask your webmaster to program the necessary fixes. If your webmaster does not know how to make the necessary programming changes (or just brushes you off by suggesting that you convert your site to run under a content management system), it may be time to consider a change.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Comments are closed.