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  • What... No Netscape?
    How I fought a battle with my conscience and lost.
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What... No Netscape?

Martin Green - 30 July 2001

Trying to Please Everyone

One of the prime rules of web site design is that you build for everyone. I always impress upon my FrontPage students that, whatever platform they use to design their pages they must test them in the various configurations that their target audience might use.

If you design on a PC, do you know what your site looks like on a Mac? Your colour scheme looks great on your monitor displaying True Color. Change the setting to 256 colour... How does it look now? And you've got that swish 21" display set at 1024x768, so you'll remember to check your pages at 800x600 and 640x480 won't you? I recently visited a well-known e-commerce site. When I completed my purchase a pop-up window appeared containing a customer survey. I use the site a lot so I filled in the form and made a few extra comments. Then I looked for the 'Submit' button and realised that it was off the screen. I usually work at 800x600 and I expect the designer thought it looked OK on their big monitor. There was no scroll bar and I couldn't resize the window. At that point my patience ran out and, like most of their customers, closed the window without submitting the form. I expect they are wondering why they got so few replies to their survey!

What about the browser?

Your favourite browser may be Internet Explorer 5. How do your pages look in Netscape and Opera, and on the Internet Explorer 3 that all those business users got when they installed Windows 95? I found out the hard way. When I first built my site, I designed for 800x600 but made sure it looked OK at 640x480, and stuck to the web-safe palette for all those 256 colour users. My browser of choice at the time was IE4 and although I had a copy of Netscape I had never checked out my site with it. I was doing some 'Internet Awareness' training with a client who used Netscape, and mentioned that I'd just put up my own site. So they all wanted to see it... and it looked dreadful. The tables didn't work properly. Pictures were in the wrong place. The font sizes were all wrong. I felt rather foolish to say the least!

Trying to please everyone can be a bit of a problem. I spent several frustrating days trying to make my pages look the same in both Netscape and Internet Explorer. Then I had an idea. I use stylesheets to control the formatting of my pages. (A cascading stylesheet (CSS) is a separate file containing formatting and page layout commands. Each web page refers to the stylesheet for instructions on how it should display its contents. If you decide to change anything - perhaps you get tired of looking at Verdana and fancy trying Tahoma for a while - one change to the stylesheet will 'cascade' through all your pages and they will update by themselves.) I solved the compatibility problem by creating two stylesheets, one for Internet Explorer and a different one for Netscape. Then I added some JavaScript to the code of each page - a browser detection script - that applied the appropriate stylesheet for the browser that was displaying the page. I wasn't completely satisfied but it was OK. I still couldn't get my pages looking exactly the same in both major browsers. Between you and me, I think this is the reason that technologies like Flash became so widely used. They give designers absolute control over the display, regardless of the user's platform. But they don't help much with a text-heavy site like mine.

Then Along Came Netscape 6

I had always had a fondness for Netscape 4, although not enough to actually use it. It had one basic problem... it didn't display pages properly. For a long while Netscape had been promising that a new version of its browser was on the way. We were promised full implementation of HTML 4 - which meant that if Internet Explorer could do it, then Netscape 6 would too. At last all our compatibility problems were going to be solved! So what did we get? Lots of new toolbars. All kinds of different skins and colour schemes to make it look pretty. And underneath all the gloss... the same old browser. It still doesn't understand tables properly; it still can't put pictures in the right place; it still has its own special way of displaying fonts (i.e. line spacing and tracking is wrong); and my pages still look dreadful. I'm faced with a decision - do I redesign my site to suit the idiosyncrasies of Netscape, or do I say "To hell with it!" and build for Internet Explorer.

Web design etiquette states that you shouldn't tell your visitors how to view your site. We often see messages like "Best viewed with Internet Explorer 5 at 800x600". Is the visitor using Opera at 640x480 going to shut down, fire up the correct browser, change monitor resolution and find your page again? I don't think so. This sort of message is essentially an apology for the site looking less than perfect in all circumstances. I don't think I should apologise for Netscape's inability to build a proper browser! My original idea was to use my browser detection script to display a special message for Netscape users: "Get a proper browser, stupid!" but I shouldn't really insult my visitors. People should be free to use whatever software they wish and if that means that to some of my visitors my site looks a mess, then I'm sorry.

It Isn't All Netscape's Fault

Microsoft is just as much to blame for the 'Browser Wars'. But when I came to rebuild my site I had to make my decision: browser compatibility or my sanity. Sanity won. If you are looking at my site with IE5 at 800x600 and 16-bit colour (i.e. 65K or TrueColor) you are (probably) seeing it just the way I wanted it to look. This site is for Microsoft Office users. They are almost certain to be using IE4 or IE5 and few people still use 640x480. I fought a battle with my conscience and lost.

So how do I sleep at night?

Very well thank you!


Additional Reading

Don't take my word for it. Pay a visit to http://www.thecounter.com/stats and see what people out there are using.


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