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  • Browser Wars Revisited
    Did I guess right four years ago?...
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Browser Wars Revisited

Martin Green - 3 October 2005

Ever since I started my Office Tips web site I have compiled monthly statistics for visitor numbers and profiles. When you visit a web site your browser declares its name and version along with other information which might help the site display itself in a way best suited to your setup (colour depth, resolution, operating system and whether or not Java and JavaScript are enabled). All these are of interest to the web designer who wants their web pages to look their best for the visitor. These statistics display interesting trends which prompted me to write an article on the subject a while ago (see: What... No Netscape?)

I've just been compiling the stats for September 2005, a little over four years after my original article. For the first time since I have been watching the numbers they recorded no visitors using Netscape.

Back in the Mists of Time...

Way back in July 2001 I wrote an article in which I complained about the difficulties of trying to keep my web site compatible with the two main protagonists of the Browser Wars, namely Internet Explorer and Netscape. After a long (okay, not very long) struggle with my conscience I decided to concentrate my efforts on Microsoft's Internet Explorer and I let Netscape fall by the wayside. I salved my conscience with the thought that numbers of Netscape users were declining and, since my site was effectively a homage to Microsoft Office (if you're reading this Bill - I think your stuff is great and you'll find a donate button on my homepage) I figured most of my visitors would be using Internet Explorer anyway.

According to the analysts at TheCounter.com back in September 2001 the various Netscape versions accounted for about 10% of the traffic on the sites they monitored, with Internet Explorer versions 4 and 5 accounting for a mighty 87%. Even then it wasn't such a tough decision to make.

A New Competitor Enters the Fight

So I began to feel comfortable that I had made the right decision. But then about a year ago people started talking about a new browser called Firefox. I downloaded a copy and took a look at my homepage. Unlike Netscape, in which my entire web site looked awful (mainly owing to Netscape's "unique" way of displaying nested tables!), Firefox managed to make a pretty decent job of rendering my pages. There was one problem though. My pages rely heavily on tables for their layout. The result is simple and uniform and I have no plans to change it.

You can't see the table structure because the table borders are hidden by setting their width to zero pixels. At least you shouldn't be able to see them! Everything's fine and as it should be but Firefox still showed some of the table borders as thin black lines. The result was distracting but since everything else seemed to be OK I decided to ignore it and hope the problem would go away by itself. I've just been making some major additions to my site and, as I always do, I checked to make sure they looked OK and functioned properly. I thought it was time to take another look at Firefox and downloaded the latest version (v1.0.6 at the time of writing) and guess what... I've still got black lines in my tables!

But this time I can't afford to be so smug. In 2001 Netscape was clearly declining in popularity but today with Firefox the opposite is true. According to TheCounter.com it first appeared on the radar in January 2005 and by September 2005 it was in second place (at 8%) after Internet Explorer 6 (at 83%) with Internet Explorer 5 in third place (at 4%). Firefox is clearly a serious contender with features like tabbed browsing and support for RSS (see my article All About RSS if you want to know why that's important) which have prompted Microsoft to consider including support for RSS in the next version of Internet Explorer.

Time for Some Lateral Thinking

I set myself the task of fixing the problem. An increasing number of my visitors are using Firefox and I want their experience to be every bit as good as that enjoyed by people using Internet Explorer. But where should I start? It was time to start thinking "outside the box". I know there's nothing wrong with my HTML code. If Firefox insists on displaying table borders, perhaps I can trick it into displaying them the way I want. I don't want the visitor to see them so how about making them transparent... no joy here because that isn't an option in HTML. The solution I found was to colour them white. At last a way to get Firefox to display my pages the way I want, and they still look fine in Internet Explorer. Now all I have to do is instruct my stylesheet accordingly and all my pages will be rendered perfectly! But there's always a snag - and this one is that occasionally I use tables with visible or coloured borders, so I can't give a global instruction to make them all white. B*ll**ks! [you may replace the asterisks with letters of your choice to construct a suitable expletive to describe my reaction on realising this]. I've made a start on updating my pages. There are a lot to change so it is going to take a while. At least my newest pages fit the bill.

Is it Worth the Effort?

Despite everything I've said about Netscape, I'm sorry that it has bitten the dust. At present the former market leader accounts for just 1% of traffic, just marginally ahead of the only other serious Windows-based competitor, Opera. But Firefox is a worthy challenger to Internet Explorer and competition is essential to drive innovation and keep Microsoft on their toes. An indication of the competition in the world of browsers is that Opera has removed advertising from the free version of its browser, a feature that must have been adversely affecting its popularity until now. I run all three and my preference is for Internet Explorer. At the moment I don't have a reason to change, but I'm keeping a close eye on Firefox and Opera and I am going to do my best to keep my site looking good on all three browsers.

But there's another competitor lurking in the shadows. It's been a while since I was able to take a look at my site through the eyes of a Mac and Apple's Safari browser has been a hit with Mac OS X users. According to TheCounter.com it already accounts for 2% of web traffic and I'm guessing that it won't be too long before there will be a version for Windows. So if someone would like to donate a Mac with OS X I'll keep a watch on Safari too!

The chart below illustrates the change in browser use since 2000. Internet Explorer continues to dominate the web whilst Netscape has almost disappeared. 2005 sees the appearance of Firefox which, along with others whose individual share is too small to show here (e.g. Safari and Opera), has caused Internet Explorer's share to start to decline.

Percent Share: Browsers

So What Happened to Netscape?

I finally banished the Netscape browser from my desktop a couple of years ago when I discovered that the much praised version 7 still failed to display my site correctly. When I was writing this article I decided to give it another chance and I'm glad I did. The current version 8 is a completely different program, giving the option to switch to the Firefox or Internet Explorer rendering engine if pages aren't displayed to your liking. There is tabbed browsing and support for RSS, and the makers claim that it has the best security of all the browsers.

Size Does Make a Difference

Other things have changed since my web site had its makeover four years ago. There have been massive changes in the way people see web pages because of changes in monitor technology. By 2001 I had already decided that it was reasonably safe to ignore the "browser safe" colour palette, which assumed that most users' computers were working at a colour depth of 256 colours (8-bit). Back in August 2001 they accounted for just 4% of users with the majority (57%) using 65K colours (16-bit) and a substantial 37% using either 32-bit or 64-bit colour. Today 32-bit colour accounts for 75% of users with another 23% using either 16-bit or 24-bit colour. 256 colour systems now account for less than 1% of web traffic.

Along with colour, screen resolution has changed. This has come largely as a result of the fall in prices of flat screen TFT monitors. I work with a two-monitor setup because in my work I find it useful to be able to see two full-sized windows at the same time. Until recently I was working on two 17 inch CRT monitors. I had the resolution of both set to 800 x 600 for two reasons: first, because in my old age my poor eyes could see them better and second, I had always used that resolution and I couldn't see a reason to change. Then one of my monitors failed. Hooray! At last I had the excuse to upgrade to a flat-panel monitor.

Because TFT and CRT monitors work in different ways they handle resolution differently. A CRT monitor can handle just about any resolution your graphics card generates because it draws the pixels it needs on the screen. A TFT monitor has its pixels built into the structure of the screen so if you ask it to display a resolution other than its built-in one it has to build them artificially by combining actual screen pixels to create virtual picture pixels (I may not have described that very well but I know what I mean). The result is that you usually get the same quality of picture on a CRT screen regardless of resolution, but on a TFT screen you get the best quality when the picture resolution matches that of the screen.

I have a 19 inch TFT screen with a resolution of 1280 x 1024. My first instinct was to set the resolution to 800 x 600 but the picture quality seemed quite poor. Then I tried 1024 x 768 which was better but not by a great deal. I reset the resolution to its optimum 1280 x 1024 and the result was perfection! My second (CRT) monitor looks poor in comparison even though I've set it's resolution to 1024 x 768 to give the impression of greater clarity. I expect it won't be long before this too will be replaced by a second TFT monitor.

Time for a New Standard?

Back in 2001 I decided to optimise my site for 800 x 600 screen resolution. At that time 53% of web users' monitors were set at that resolution, with 1024 x 768 in second place with 33%. I reckoned it was safe to discard 640 x 480 which had fallen to 5% and was still declining. Four years later the positions of the leaders have reversed. 1024 x 768 is in first place with 55% pushing 800 x 600 into second place at 23%. My new "favourite" resolution of 1280 x 1024, which managed just 3% of traffic in September 2001, now accounts for 13% and is climbing rapidly.

This chart shows how preferences for screen resolution have changed from 2000 to 2005. Today most people are using 1024 x 768. As larger TFT screens become cheaper the number of people using 1280 x 1024 is increasing at the expense of 800 x 600 (my guess is that many of these are older CRT monitors which are gradually coming to the end of their days) and 640 x 480 has fallen off the radar completely!

Percent Share: Resolution

A substantial number of web users have monitors set to 800 x 600 so, for now at least, I'm going to continue to optimise my site for that resolution. And I'm guessing that it might stay that way for a while. I have noticed that, with bigger screens and the accompanying higher resolution, people are using their computers differently. Instead of always maximising their program windows they often prefer to see more than one window on the screen. Or they might make use of the multitude of side-bars and toolbars that used to take up so much valuable screen real-estate.

Color depth is changing too. It's been a while since I saw a screen displaying just 256 colours (8-bit). I remember arguments with IT staff who were worried that the power required to display anything more than this would compromise the resources of their users' computers. I never agreed with them at the time, and today even the most basic PC is perfectly capable of rendering 32-bit colour without any noticeable effect on its performance. Even by 2000 16-bit colour was the preferred choice. Today this has given way to 32-bit colour with the other colour depths in sharp decline. Soon the browser-safe palette will be just a distant memory!

Percent Share: Color Depth

So, in case you haven't noticed the line at the bottom of my homepage, this site will remain optimised for Internet Explorer, 800x600 and True Color... for the time-being anyway. And I shall be keeping a close eye on those statistics.

More Information

The popular browsers are all available for free download. It's a good idea to make sure you have the latest version to keep up with the latest advances in technology and to guard against the unwanted activities of hackers and virus-writers. Here's where you can find them:

Microsoft Internet Explorer: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/default.mspx
Mozilla Firefox: http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/
Netscape: http://browser.netscape.com/ns8/
Opera: http://www.opera.com/index.dml
Apple Safari: http://www.apple.com/macosx/features/safari/


Thanks to TheCounter.com for the statistics quoted here. You can find their work at http://www.thecounter.com/stats/


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