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Browser Wars

Wouldn't it be nice if all the browser's got along and played nice? Wouldn’t it be great if all the browser companies felt delivering the best possible user experience to Internet surfers was a goal worth striving for, and worth working together to achieve? Well, unfortunately, that is not the case.

Web developers must be aware of the sometimes subtle, and sometimes blatant differences in the way disparate browsers display HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Perl, Ruby on Rails, etc. Knowing these differences, and designing a website to be prepared to handle them is one of the key things that separates professional web designers from hobbyist.

Having a website be available and appear correctly to the widest possible customer base is obviously important for online stores, but, for those sites that track visitor analytics, it also affects traffic and bounce rates. Users who can't see a page displayed properly are likely to leave the site quickly, never to return.

So what are some of the issues involved when coding for disparate browsers? Well, there are many times bits of HTML code has to be written three or four different ways to accomplish one goal and have it seen correctly on different browsers. One example is how background images are displayed and act. Webkit browsers, like Apple’s Safari, have to be told to handle backgrounds a bit differently than Mozilla’s Firefox browser, which is built upon the Gecko layout engine. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, built on the Trident engine, requires a different coding than either Firefox or Safari. Opera is a cool browser built on the Blink layout engine has a smaller, but loyal fan base that can’t be ignored. The browser making the most noise today is Google’s Chrome, which initially utilized Webkit, but later versions switched to Blink. If all that weren’t enough, Microsoft (which, due to distributing IE free with its Windows OS, dominated the browser market for many years) throws the biggest pile of wrenches into the works by forcing designers to make significant coding adjustments to compensate for its many older versions (particularly IE8 and older). Keeping up with the changes can be a daunting task, but as it affects how websites are displayed, and, thusly, how users view the pages, doing so is paramount for professional web designers.

So why do browser companies cause such headaches for web developers? First, they are all in competition with each other, and, one would assume, each feels their way is the best way. But, as with most things in the computing world, it often comes down to who owns, and is able to capitalize on, specific technologies. For instance, one of the coolest things about HTML5 is the video tags that allow video to play in a browser without a plugins. However, one of the biggest battles in the browser wars is the issue of video encoding. Mozilla and Opera utilize a video format called Ogg Theora. Initially Apple and Google weren’t on board with that, throwing their support behind H.264. Again Microsoft caused double issues by requiring different coding for older browsers. Newer versions of IE support Mp4, but older versions needed special treatment, as they don’t support the video tag at all. Requiring a video to be encoded in 3 different formats, and code written to accommodate the preferences of different browsers demonstrates complexity involved in battling through the browser wars.

There were legal issues surrounding the encoding formats and compression software, mostly stemming from open source software vs. patented software ownership (when royalties are involved, playing nice is rarely a concern). Fortunately, as of late, due in part to the large proliferation of H.264 encoded videos, as well as efficiency, Mozilla has started to support the format. Google has also come on board with Ogg Theora, so it seems at least a perceived peace is on the horizon.

It is a win for Internet users when these companies start to put aside differences and agree to adopt common approaches concerning necessary technologies such as video formatting. Agreements such as these get us all well on our way to further standardizing HTML5. More on HTML5 coming soon in a future blog!

Written and Copyrighted by Computer Networks and Design, LLC. ©

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