During web development work it is important to make sure that your web site is compatible with a wide variety of “platforms” and “browsers”. By platform we mean different computer systems (e.g. PC, Mac, Xbox, Playstation, Mobile Phones) and by browser we mean the software used on the platforms to view your site (e.g. Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, Chrome).
A failure to check for this ‘cross browser’ compatibility can mean that a portion of visitors to your web site will have a poor experience. At best some pages may not load quite correctly or some animations may not load – but at worst you’ll lose a customer and get a bad reputation. It smacks of poor attention to detail and reflects badly upon you.
Unfortunately – unless you have deep pockets (or your site is extraordinarily basic), you cannot expect your site to work in exactly the same way on all systems. Moreover it is simply not practical to test for every single eventuality.
At time of writing, there are no less than SIXTY different versions of Internet Explorer. (http://support.microsoft.com/kb/969393) Of course many of these versions are similar and should function in the same way within each ‘major’ version (e.g. version 8 or 9) however as IT support specialists we know that they do not and in fact many of the version changes address ‘fixes’ to the way web sites are displayed.
It is true that many of these versions are no longer in use by the majority of the public – so a line must be drawn as to what is ‘reasonable’ in terms of testing browser compatibility; the same applies to other platforms and other browsers. There could be as many as a thousand combinations you could test for – many of which are simply not worth bothering with.
So where do you draw the line when testing browser compatibility……? The answer must be based on a number of factors and is variable with each site developed, but the main things to drive compatibility testing are:
Browser Usage Statistics, Time and Money.
Browser usage statistics show what percentage of visitors to web sites use which browsers and is a good starting point when selecting where to draw the ‘testing’ line. Some statistics are available on the internet and can show you the most popular browsers available at a given point in time, but these statistics are flawed.
One client recently quoted an ‘expert’ source which indicated that 37.3% of people use Google Chrome, while 18.9% of people use Internet Explorer. Certainly Chrome is doing well but we knew that these ‘facts’ were just plain wrong for his web site.
We were able to prove to the client the actual visitor statistics to the client showed that 60.1% of visitors use Internet Explorer, 16.9% use Safari, and just 11.8% of visitors use Chrome. The reality of the situation is that no external ‘expert’ can tell you the browser usage of visitors to your web site – only your web host or developer can. Stats can only be given on a site-by-site basis and it is a mistake to think otherwise.
Once you have accurate statistics for your site you can then make a judgement call on testing. Let’s say for example that you have 100 visitors a day. In the example given above you’d want to make sure the web site worked well in Internet Explorer and Safari because this represents nearly 77 visitors to your site in that day. In this example we’d recommend compatibility testing on Chrome and Firefox too because together they represent 19 visitors per day which is a decent chunk of potential clients.
The Pandora’s Box of compatibility testing however is that what happens when you find a problem…? If you find the web site works in three browsers, but 7.5 % of the population will not see your web site properly, will you want to spend the money to iron it out? Of course you should, but what if that development costs you several hundred pounds, or the act of instigating a ‘simple’ fix for one browser causes issues in other browsers. You must compromise somewhere.
Browser compatibility testing is now also compounded by the (understandable) fashion for self-managed web sites developed with such systems as WordPress. Such tools allow us as web site designers to give our clients a ‘reasonably cheap’, ‘reasonably attractive’, ‘reasonably compatible’ web site which they can manage ‘reasonably easily’ themselves.
WordPress is great if you are seeking to add a blog and cut web site development costs but can make browser compatibility an issue if you want to do anything out of the ordinary. WordPress plugins for example may look great in Internet Explorer but could display poorly in Chrome. Finding a plugin to do what you want that has good browser compatibility could be a difficult, time consuming and expensive task.
Ultimately, any web site can be made to work on any browser, but sometimes you need to spend a lot of money to do so. Without these deep pockets, you will have to compromise somewhere, and with a CMS based web site the compromises may be greater.