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