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Counting Clicks

Martin Green - 23 July 2003

I Know what You Did Last Summer

Well, I don't actually. But I know which browser you are using, and your operating system, screen resolution and colour depth settings too. When you visit a web site your browser makes that information available so that pages can be rendered properly. So, apart from idle curiosity, why would I want to know all that?

I built and maintain this web site myself (yes folks little ol' me, no big corporation, it's all my own work!) using Microsoft FrontPage, and I like to know which browser and operating system my visitors are using because it helps me build pages that will be legible and well laid-out.

Does the Browser Matter?

It is good web-design practice to make you web site compatible with as many browsers as possible, and I have written before about the problems this poses. Some time ago I gave up trying to make my pages look good on Netscape's browsers. With the recent release of Netscape 7 I decided to give the browser-from-hell another chance and installed the latest build of Netscape 7. Ten minutes later I uninstalled it. Netscape's latest incarnation was still unable to render tables properly, or correctly interpret cascading stylesheets, or implement the JavaScript code that its own developers created in the early days of the web. Yet it is festooned with all sorts of bells and whistles, pretty skins and customisable toolbars. It is the embodiment of style over substance.

But I figured that since my site is devoted almost entirely to Microsoft Office most visitors will be using Microsoft's browser. Surely, the only reasons someone would be using Netscape would be that:

  1. They hate Microsoft and would never use any of their products (in which case they are very welcome but why are they here?).
  2. They have never heard of Internet Explorer (this must be the only good reason!).
  3. They think Internet Explorer is far too expensive and not worth the money (both NS7 and IE6 are free).

So let's take a look at the statistics as they apply to this web site:

Over 97% of my visitors use Internet Explorer and the vast majority of those people are using the latest version, IE6. Netscape users total less than 2.5%. I guess that speaks for itself!

Is There a Future for Netscape?

A while ago AOL took control of Netscape and the browser's future seemed secure, but in May of 2003 Microsoft did a deal with AOL in settlement of the row between them. In short, Microsoft gave AOL $750 million along with a royalty-free 7-year lease on Microsoft's browsing technology. So what about Netscape? I think I'd rather be on Microsoft's payroll than Netscape's right now.

Some say that Netscape's future lies in the non-Microsoft worlds of Linux and Macintosh but even that doesn't hold much promise considering Microsoft's controlling stake in the Mac. There are other browsers in the marketplace. I found Opera an excellent performer and faster than Internet Explorer when working on a 56K modem, but on my broadband connection there is no noticeable difference.

Windows XP Leads the Field

I have to admit that the operating system statistics surprised me! Take a look for yourself...

I know that a lot of corporate users were glad to make the move from Windows NT to Windows 2000, which ranks a close second behind the top operating system, Windows XP. Both are way ahead of the others. Yet I was surprised to see that Windows XP had been taken up so quickly.

I installed Windows XP as soon as it was available. I was pretty desperate at the time, having bought a new desktop machine that came with Windows ME preloaded. What a disaster that was! It worked fine until I started installing my software. My Epson Stylus Color 600 printer refused to work and I soon got used to seeing the "blue-screen-of-death" every time I shut the machine down. I considered upgrading to Windows 2000 but Windows XP came along and I chose that. It's an excellent operating system in all respects. Its System Restore feature is a real lifesaver and has helped me avoid several potential disasters. And my ageing printer works perfectly again!

I now run Windows XP on my main desktop machine with Office XP and on a notebook with Office 2000. I have two other desktop machines both running Windows 98 with Office 2000, and Office 97 respectively. Why so many machines? First, I write about, train and develop for all the Microsoft Office versions so I have to be able to test my work; and second, I can't bring myself to throw a perfectly good computer away! I have always found Windows 98 to be a good, stable operating system but I am never going to touch Windows ME again! My recommendation goes to Windows XP - it's stable and fast and, once you have got over the shock of the "lollipop" interface (which you can change in favour of the traditional one if you want) it beats everything else.

Office 2003... Yawn!!

Until recently I kept a machine running Windows 3.11 and Office 4.3. Occasionally I was asked to run training courses on Access 2 and Excel 5, but I don't have any clients using those systems now. I cut my Office teeth on those programs so I still have a fondness for them - and the disks are still on my shelf should I ever need them!

My mailbag indicates that the movement towards new versions of Microsoft Office has been far slower than the uptake of the latest Windows versions. Many people are still using Office 97. It's clear that Office 95 was rushed out in a largely unfinished and untested state to be ready for the launch of Windows 95. I haven't come across many users who really liked it. But Office 97 was, and still is, an excellent product and in widespread use.

I have searched the web for information about how many people use the various different versions of Microsoft Office, but without success, so I have started to conduct my own poll. I'll publish the results as soon as I have enough data.

As a Microsoft Office trainer and developer, I haven't looked forward to newer versions of Office in the same way as I had to Windows. There can be no argument that I am a firm supporter and committed user of Microsoft Office but I can't say I'm all that excited about yet another version - and Office 2003 is almost upon us! But, as with previous updates I will have a copy as soon as Microsoft releases it and I expect I will be working with it as my clients demand. I said the same about Office XP (aka: Office 2002) but it has become my version of choice and I'm using it right now. I guess the same will be true for the next version.

How Big is Yours?

Many web hosts can provide some sort of visitor statistics for your web site, but for comprehensive data on user profiles you are likely to need the services of a specialist company like TheCounter.com who publish user statistics obtained from the millions of visitors to their customers' web sites. This data contains useful information about the trends in computer hardware and is of interest to both web developers and applications developers. I normally use a 17 inch monitor at a resolution of 800x600 and 32-bit ("High Color") colour depth. I'm too mean to buy a bigger monitor and my feeble old eyes can't see anything smaller!

When deciding on a profile for my web site I did some research and discovered that most users were also working at 800x600 but, particularly in business environments, were still using 8-bit (256 Colours) colour depth. So I stuck with "web-safe" colours to make sure my illustrations didn't offend anyone! Today, the statistics tell a different story.

The charts below show the percentages for the various screen resolutions and colour depth from 1999 to 2003 and are calculated from data published at www.thecounter.com/stats/.

The 800x600 resolution still remains most popular but now its popularity is almost matched by 1024x768. The higher resolution of 1280x1024 has fallen in use, whilst 640x480 and 1152x864 remain more-or-less unchanged at a low level of use. I stopped using 640x480 a long time ago and now use 800x600 even on a 14 inch monitor.

This tells me that I'm going to have to make sure that my site looks OK at the higher resolution of 1024x768 as well as at 800x600. This trend is probably due to the increasing popularity and falling price of larger monitors - 17 inch seems to be the minimum for business use today. But there's a certain kind of person that likes to crank up everything to maximum and will always use the highest settings, reasoning somehow that they are getting more for their money.

I recently worked with a company where all the staff were issued with excellent 19 inch flat screen monitors, but their IT department had set the resolution to the maximum of 1280x1024. Their reasoning was that they needed to work with large spreadsheets and this allowed them to see more columns and rows. The problem was that setting the resolution so high changed the size of everything... toolbars, dialog boxes, web pages etc. when all they wanted to do was see more of their spreadsheets. To get an idea of how it looked, get someone to hold up a newspaper, then stand back ten feet and try to read it! Or, next time you have Excel open change the zoom to 50%. Had they known about Excel's "zoom" command they could have avoided the problem.  Of course, IT had locked them out of the display properties controls so they couldn't adjust it to their own preference, and they were all too frightened to ask IT to change it for them!

This information is important for developers. In my early days as an applications developer I had to rebuild a whole bunch of Excel UserForms because I had mistakenly assumed that the 800x600 monitor on which my client and I tested the application was typical of those on which it would be used. "It's a bit small..." they said when we distributed the (as I thought) finished product. Well, it would be at 1280x1024! I now know to ask that question in advance.

More and More Colour

When Windows 95 came on the scene, a graphics card producing anything more than 256 colours was something to be proud of. Not so today. 16-bit colour (65,536 colours) is still the most popular colour depth but is now almost equalled by 32-bit ("High Colour"). Both 24-bit ("True Colour") and 8-bit (256 colours) survive but are decreasing in use.

But don't be fooled by "global" statistics. It's important to know your user. You might expect that 256 colour is used mainly by people with older systems, perhaps combined with small monitors (13 or 14 inch) at 640x480 resolution. That would make sense. But I have come across many business systems where the colour depth is set at 256 colour (and control removed from the user) even on high specification systems, the theory being that anything more drains system resources. Who teaches these guys this stuff?

What Does It All Mean?

There is a clear trend towards higher specification hardware. As people join the population of PC-owners and buy their first  computer, they get what is available. If I went to the local PC supermarket and bought their cheapest model I would get something with a far higher spec than my current main desktop PC that I bought just a year ago! New machines tend to come with the latest operating system installed, which probably accounts for the success of Windows XP.

But when it comes to Microsoft Office, there seems to be a different story. I say "seems" because so far this is just an impression from looking at my own correspondence and from comments on newsgroups and discussion groups. If you already had a copy of Office 97 and bought a new computer, would you also upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft Office?

In the business environment, upgrading to the next version of Office can be costly in both time and money, and has implications for staff training too. So I would guess that uptake of each new version of Microsoft Office is a far more gradual process (although this doesn't seem to deter Microsoft from constantly working on the "next" version).

Most of this is conjecture so, if you have a moment, why not participate in my poll and help me add to the sum of human knowledge.

As for me, my vote doesn't count. I've got them all! But I'm thinking of putting together a "reality check" machine. I'll set up my ageing (c. 1995) Pentium 75 computer with Windows 3.11 and Office 4.3 Professional and once in a while I'll switch on the 14 inch monitor set at 640x480 and 256 colours, and remember how things were in the "good old days".

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