It’s Not Still 1998

Why do so many web sites ignore the advances in web technology that have been made since 1998?

This article was originally written as a weblog for Ecademy in September 2002.

Cast your mind back to 1998. The web was a mess. This was largely due to the fact that there were two major browsers and they both supported large amounts of non-standard HTML that was incompatible with the competing browser. It seemed that most sites you visited were only visible in Internet Explorer or (less commonly) Netscape. In the cases where sites worked equally well in both of the major browsers, this was more than likely because the developers had, in fact, created two sites and determined which one to send you by working out which browser you were using. Developing and maintaining a site in such circumstances was a nightmare.

Into this world came the Web Standards Project. They made it their mission to talk to the large browser companies and the W3C to come to some agreement that would solve this problem.

And they pretty much succeeded in their mission. If you look around today the two major browsers support much the same dialects of HTML (HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.0), with very similar versions of JavaScript, similar DOM support and similar levels of support for CSS2. We have all the tools in place to create great web sites that work well in both major browsers (and many more besides – but we’ll get to that later).

But we don’t see that. We still see sites that claim they are IE-only. We still see sites that are made of some nightmare version of HTML that might almost be HTML 3.2 (but isn’t anywhere near being valid). We still see ($deity help us) browser sniffing.

Why is this?

In my opinion, the reason is that whilst we’ve made massive improvements in the available tools, we’re still stuck with the same designers and developers. No-one has told the majority of the web designers out there that it’s no longer 1998. You don’t need to use the <font> tag any more. The vast majority of your visitors will be using a browser that supports CSS – which actually gives you more control over how the page looks than the technology that they’re currently using.

Or maybe it isn’t the designers. Maybe today’s CTOs are people who were designers in 1998 and they haven’t bothered to keep up to date with what’s going on in web technology.

Whatever the reason, I think I’m actually seeing an increase in IE-only web sites. Three examples that I’ve seen recently – the Alexa toolbar that Thomas (note: Thomas Power – who runs Ecademy) is so keen on only works on IE, the Internet bank Egg have recently introduced new features that only work on IE and this week four UK companies introduced a combined customer loyalty card called Nectar. They encourage people to register for this site on the web and guess what – the site only works in IE.

Another argument that you’ll hear is that they’ll target IE because the vast majority of users are using IE. This is, of course, true – but let me present a few counter arguments.

It may be true that only 5% of your visitors are using non-IE browsers, but that’s 5% of potential customers who won’t see your site. In my experience creating a site that targets web standards and will therefore run on 100% of browsers is actually easier that creating one that only targets IE. So you’re spending extra effort to cut your potential market. Does that sound like good business sense?

Secondly, you might be right that 95% of users are using IE, but which version of IE are they using? If you’re using IE-specific features then the version will matter. Things that work in IE 6.0 won’t look the same (or won’t work at all) in IE 4.0. And there are people still using IE 4.0.

Finally, the trend in the browser market has been for more and more people to use IE. But that can’t go on. It looks like AOL will be introducing a Mozilla-based browser as standard in the near future. Do you really want to miss out on all the AOL users? Linux usage on the desktop is growing so you’ll see more and more people using things like Galeon and Konquerer. Even amongst Windows users, Mozilla and Opera are slowly growing in popularity. And what about non-PC devices? Will you support users browsing on their TV? Or their Palm Pilot? Or their mobile phone?

For so many reasons, developing sites that only target IE is a really bad idea. The tools are there to create better sites that can be seen by more people. There’s no reason to still act like you’re stuck in 1998.

(And one last parenthetical point. If you’re going to insist on an IE-only site, then please don’t show me a page suggesting that I “upgrade” to IE in order to use it. I’m already using the most recent version of Mozilla, which is far more capable than IE. Switching to IE would be a downgrade and is therefore a step that I don’t intend to take.)

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