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The Customer Chooses The Web Browser, Stupid

Requiring customers to use a specific kind of technology to access your website or web apps is 1990s thinking.

A colleague just told me about a site that claims to be "leading the transformation of payer-provider collaboration" in healthcare "by delivering an advanced SaaS-based enterprise-class software product line." That's heady stuff. Yet when my colleague tried to browse the site on his Mac and iPad, it said: "Warning: Internet Explorer is required." Holy 1990s, Batman.

Depending on which source you consult -- and estimates vary wildly -- Internet Explorer now accounts for as little as 12% or as much as 58% of the web browser market. Can you tell me why you would want to give at least half your customers a headache?

At first, I didn't believe that such sites still exist, but they do. A US State Department site requires IE, and an insurance company site requires a Windows operating system behind the user's browser. I couldn't find an up-to-date list of similar sites, but suffice it to say they're out there in both the public and private sectors, including the one my colleague pointed out.

In the same way that I understand why wolves eat lambs, I understand why Google doesn't accommodate IE users of Google Docs. Likewise, I understand why Microsoft's development tools make it super easy to build apps using methods that break browsers other than IE. They're in a battle for marketshare. But if you're any other kind of company or government entity trying to serve your customers, the only smart option is to be a browser Switzerland, even though it might take more app or site development effort.

Of course, clever IT support personnel can help their people bypass IE-only checkpoints, including using user agent switcher functionality for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari that makes your browser of choice identify itself as IE. But faking out the web app or site works only for sites that block non-IE browsers without having a good technical reason to do so. It won't work for sites that have coded specifically enough to IE that things break when you don't use the Microsoft browser.

[Quit complaining about how tough your job is. Read IT Leaders: Grow A Pair.]

But the problem isn't the battle among browser software providers. It's folks creating web apps that insist on IE or any other browser, dictating to a substantial number of customers which platform they should be using. This is madness. My colleague Kurt Marko said it well during an email conversation on this topic. "Those who try to dictate technology choices to customers will get eaten alive by those who figure out creative ways to make it all seem like one, unified experience."

The browser wars are long over. Heading into 2014, any self-respecting web designer understands that it's all about responsive design -- setting up pages to display clearly on whichever browser or device they're being rendered. Only hidebound technologists still insist on imposing technical standardization on a user population that no longer has the deer-in-the-headlights look it had back in 1998.

Is supporting multiple platforms difficult? It depends on what you call difficult. It does require going beyond the default targets of the least expensive Fisher-Price development tools. Spend some money if your developers need a cross-platform tool that's easy to use, such as Xamarin. If you're strapped for cash, learn Ruby and Rails, or Python and Django. But don't choose the easy and cheap road. It's easy for you but not the customer.

No matter who is developing the website for your organization, if you don't want it to look lazy, stupid, or oblivious, ensure that your technology is fitting your customers, not the other way around.

Consumerization 1.0 was "we don't need IT." Today we need IT to bridge the gap between consumer and business tech. Also in the Consumerization 2.0 issue of InformationWeek: Stop worrying about the role of the CIO (free registration required).

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User Rank: Apprentice
12/11/2013 | 1:24:41 PM
This knife cuts both ways
I often see it go a bit the other way - sites coded for Chrome or Firefox, with less compatibility for IE - perhaps because well meaning young coders "know" that they (Chrome and Firefox) are 100 times better than IE, and even sometimes have more than a dislike for IE, bordering on a hatred of anything Microsoft.

Most likely, a huge percentage of users world wide are on IE, on my websites, visitors using IE range from 53 to almost 70 per cent. 

If you are one of those coders mentioned above, as the article suggests, don't let your beliefs hurt your customers - just take care of them, and certainly do not punish them because of a belief that they are using the wrong browser!

David T. Bauman

IT Consultant
User Rank: Ninja
12/11/2013 | 1:37:48 PM
Balanced (somewhat)
 I was glad to see you finally pointed out there are also people/sites that unnecessarily require other browsers beside IE.  Some in fact specifically exclude IE, besides just Google.  But that is one of the reasons I don't use Google apps. 

I don't love IE but I don't hate it either.  I also have Firefox at work because our current allowed version of IE is 8 and some sites just do not render correctly, or work at all.  If I really want to get to the site I try Firefox.  At home I have IE 10 and 11 if a site doesn't work with whichever one of them is on the computer I am using I just don't go to the site. 
User Rank: Apprentice
12/11/2013 | 2:34:09 PM
How about the browsers following the standards????
This artile actually made me see red.  As a developer, I should not have to write differnt code for every browsser, nor should I be requried to purchase additional tools to support it.  Though they are getting closer, the three major browser competitors are STILL not following HTML5 standards equally, and making a page work for all broswers is not usually a one-line fix.

QUIT BLAMING THE WEB DEVELOPERS!! We need an industry that will quit crashing my pages with every new release!!!!
User Rank: Apprentice
12/11/2013 | 3:17:49 PM
IE doesn't follow standards
Over the years, IE is the culprit that doesn't follow standards or tries to create its own.  IE 7 is still out there in use and is very difficult to accomodate.  Spend money!  Do you think startups want to spend money supporting older browsers that should never have been released.  We developed our cloud-based application on Windows Azure using the most up-to-date HTML 5 standards and are developing in Microsoft's Visual Studio 2013 (and prevously 2012) and we still have the most problems supporting IE, especially IE 8 which is in wide use in companies and the operating system they use does matter and many are still on Windows XP.

On the other hand, Firefox seems to be out of favor with some large companies like Amex which don't support it - although they don't advertise that. 

User Rank: Author
12/11/2013 | 3:28:55 PM
Customers Vote
And make it work on tablets, too. App quirks that force me to put down the tablet and move over to the laptop are getting old quickly.
User Rank: Apprentice
12/11/2013 | 10:58:12 PM
Cover Oregon - an overall embarrassment
Cover Oregon (the Oregon Obamacare Exchange) has done just this - requiring everyone to use MS Internet Explorer.  Other than a completely incompetent rollout of the site (still not done) they add insult to injury by proving to everyone they are also woefully behind the times and technically stupid. 
User Rank: Ninja
12/12/2013 | 6:44:41 AM
Re: How about the browsers following the standards????
Oh, I'm not blaming the web developers.  I'm blaming their maangers.  Although, now that you point it out, the web developers probably should be a little clued in as well that we don't live in the world of WINSOCK.DLL and Trumpet TCP anymore.
Gov 3.0
Gov 3.0,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/12/2013 | 2:34:56 PM
Internal policy and lack of testing equipment gets in the way
Since I've been working with web interfaces, I've seen a number of problems:

1. Junior developers and testers that have no concept that browser have differences.

2. Managers that won't pay for proper test equipment or won't pay for time to test on multiple systems.

3. Managers that think 50-70% = 100% of users.

4. Managers that think all users are like them.

4. Organization security policy that all development must be done on the organization's approved workstations with the allowed software. I'm in this situation now. Our development is done on a custom (hacked) version of windows 7 and a custom version IE8. We now have an approved custom version of Chrome. This is great for internal web applications. The internal users all have the same setup. It does very little to support development of web applications for external users.
User Rank: Ninja
12/13/2013 | 7:45:53 AM
Re: How about the browsers following the standards????
I fully agree! Nobody gets bent out of shape when an application is only available on Windows. Where is the demand that all applications ever published have to run on OS X and Linux as well? And where is the complaint that not everything in the Google app store also works on iOS, Windows Phone, Symbian, WebOS? One can call such a demand unreasonable without much debate.

Browsers are designed so drastically different that the same perfectly valid markup and script gets executed and interpreted differently in each browser. IE is and always was the worst offender, but I also come across cases where everything works fine in IE and Firefox, but fails in Chrome. And one would think that Firefox on Windows behaves the same as Firefox on OS X or Firefox on Linux. True, for the most part that is the case, but not always.

Not only developers need to adjust to that, QA has to test on all these platforms and combinations. Let's start counting:

- Firefox on Windows, OS X, Linux - 3

- Chrome on Windows, Linux - 2

- IE - 1

- Safari - 1

- Opera on Windows, Linux - 2

- KDE - 1

This is already a count of 10. Add to that the different Windows versions and IE versions (at least 9, 10, 11) plus the common agreement to support current version and current version minus 1. And I am not sure if Opera is available for OS X and if KDE runs on other OS than Linux. And Linux itself comes in various distributions that potentially introduce differences. Add to that hardware differences based on processor and graphics platforms. One would think that any x86_64 platform is the same, but some applications or systems are picky, try to install OS X on an x86_64 system based on an AMD chance. And now add the insane variety of browsers on the numerous mobile platforms!

So we are looking at at least 40 to 60 different combinations for which a web app needs to be potentially optimized, but in any case fully tested to meet the demand put forward in this article. Sure, we in QA could automate things if we just had a tool that could run automated scripts on any platform. Yes, there are excellent cloud services out there that have even the most exotic browser and OS combo available, but hooking up 3rd party systems into our R&D network does not really jive well with securing IP.

Now add to that the expectation that in an agile world a feature request can be made on Monday and by Friday we have product to ship. Really? Design takes a day or two, coding a day or two, and testing it on every stinkin' browser out there for any combination of new and existing functionality is supposed to happen when? And next week we rip everything out because users do not like it or the entire app gets thrown own in favor of the next best thing.

Demanding that every web app runs on every browser without any problems is unreasonable and attempting to make this happen is unsustainable. Sorry to say, but anyone asking for this is just clueless! Yes, the IE only approach is so 90s, but we can thank Microsoft and its IE6 for that plus ASP and whatever else Microsoft cooked up to build a proprietary stack on a standards based platform!
User Rank: Apprentice
12/13/2013 | 5:35:19 PM
Re: How about the browsers following the standards????
...and when you throw Adobe Acrobat (especially LiveCycle forms) into the mix, things get REALLY messed up because not every company seems to be able to come to an agreement with Adobe on licensing and fees.
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