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Browser Compatibility Development Guide

  • June 25, 2009
  • By Jeff Ryan
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Introduction

Creating cross browser web applications impacts the entire Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC). Impacted roles include project managers, web designers, architects, developers and quality assurance.

This guide for browser compatibility development has been designed to answer the following questions about developing cross browser web applications:

  1. Is the browser compatibility problem a business problem?
  2. What is the recommended browser compatibility solution?
  3. What browser families do I need to support?
  4. What environments and tools are required?
  5. What are design and development best practices?
  6. What are design and development pitfalls?
  7. What additional resources are recommended?

The goal of this article is to provide the information needed to start or enhance a browser compatibility development practice in your organization.

Browser Compatibility Now and Then

At the turn of the century, web developers created applications which worked across Netscape and Internet Explorer (IE) browser families as each browser competed for market share. This was an arduous task due to evolving web standards and the lack of adoption across vendors. In the ensuing years, Internet Explorer won the market share battle, but not the war. The additional effort for building applications to work with Netscape was not warranted for many applications.

From the perspective of market share, the current situation looks much more like 2000 than 2003. There are now two very popular browser families, IE and Firefox. Other browsers such as Safari, Chrome and Opera have a significant presence as well.

From the perspective of web standards, it is a totally different game. Browser standards are stable and mature. Their adoption across vendors is very broad. While not a trivial task, it is much easier today to build web applications which work across browser families if standards are followed. Browser compatibility is more of a developer than a vendor problem today.

The Browser Compatibility Problem

Wikipedia defines "cross browser" as the ability for a website to support multiple web browsers. This is essentially what we mean by browser compatibility. In the past, new features were added to IE and Netscape without any coordination between vendors. This resulted in differences between how features worked ranging from slight cosmetic differences to profound conceptual differences.

Today, the maturity and adoption of web standards by vendors has standardized the feature set to a great extent. This is fortunate because the marketplace demands browser agnostic web applications. If your organization creates applications tied to a specific browser, it puts itself at the risk of turning away consumers and partners who prefer to interact with a particular browser. This is the browser compatibility business problem. If your website does not render or operate correctly on a user's browser, it negatively affects your organizations image and brand. This means your applications should be browser agnostic to the highest degree practical.

The Browser Compatibility Solution

In the past, the requirement for cross browser applications was solved for by creating "forks" in the code to handle the peculiarities of supported browsers. This made it costly and difficult to create and maintain websites due to the redundant development and testing of the various code branches. When new browser versions were introduced, poorly designed forks often created additional work due to the change in browser behavior.

Web standards provide a much simpler solution for building cross browser applications. The web application is designed from the start to support web standards--not a particular browser. To a certain degree, this future proofs the web application from the introduction of new browsers and browser versions.





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