July 8, 2002 4:00 AM PDT
Sites bow to Microsoft's browser king
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Shutterfly's browser preference page is more than ironic; it reflects an ongoing bias among some Web sites to write and test their pages for the browser most people use--Internet Explorer. The trend lives on despite the support Web standards receive from several new browsers, including Netscape's latest, its open-source cousin Mozilla and others such as Opera and iCab.
Non-agnostic Web sites "are saying, 'We're only interested in people if they use this browser,'" said Janet Daly, a representative for standards group the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). "That's a mistake on their part. The browser is a basic utility for people, and it's about having access to information regardless of who made that information or what authoring tool they used."
The call for Web authors to comply with standards comes as a new wave of competitors seeks to dislodge Microsoft from its perch as the No. 1 browser maker. IE is used by more than 85 percent of all Web surfers by many counts, and may go even higher. One recent study showed it with 95 percent share.
AOL Time Warner, which purchased Netscape in 1999 for some $4.2 billion, is throwing more support behind the company's products after years of neglect. For the first time, the company is testing Netscape as the default browser in its CompuServe and America Online service software, having used IE for years as part of a complex cross-marketing agreement. AOL Time Warner has also filed a civil suit on behalf of Netscape that alleges Microsoft engaged in illegal practices.
Mozilla, meanwhile, recently released its first public version, Mozilla 1.0, capping four years of development. Other IE alternatives from companies such as Opera Software are also winning fans and giving Web surfers more choice than ever before.
Waiting on Web authors
While competition appears to be piling up, would-be IE rivals must overcome industry inertia that runs deep within the fabric of how Web pages are put together. Not least, they rely on the cooperation of skeptical Web authors who see little reward in supporting technology that is used by just a small fraction of their customers.
Shutterfly is hardly alone among mainstream Web sites discriminating against browsers. Safeway.com, for example, warns visitors that "the Safeway.com site works best with the Internet Explorer Web browser. Other browsers, such as Netscape, may not function properly."
Critics call these browser warning pages reminiscent of the bad old days of the Web, when sites routinely sported the tag "best viewed in Navigator" or "best viewed in IE."
Microsoft in November revived those memories and earned widespread wrath when it locked out competing browsers from its MSNBC news site. The incident provoked accusations that Microsoft was taking advantage of its near-total dominance of the browser market to further marginalize competitors.
Microsoft declined to comment for this story.
The state of affairs with browser-site compatibility highlights a lingering gap between reality and the lofty goals of Web standards. Even as standards advocates acknowledge that the browsers are largely in compliance with W3C recommendations, plenty of sites remain, practically speaking, Internet Explorer-only zones.
Now that browsers are mostly standards-compliant, the roles of accused and accuser largely have been reversed.
A few years ago, it was Web developers who organized and ranted against the browser makers, specifically Microsoft and Netscape, demanding standards-compliant software. Now, the browser makers and even the Web's premier standards organization are attributing many of the glitches to Web authors who write non-compliant code or tailor their code to work with market-leading browsers, specifically IE.
This phenomenon traps smaller browsers in a vicious circle: Because they have a limited following, Web authors don't write or test for them. When, as a result, Web sites don't work with the browser--or explicitly rule it out--surfers have a repeated incentive to give up and use Internet Explorer.
Beyond the basics
The person browsing with the latest Opera, Mozilla or Netscape browser will be able to access just about any site on the Web. But non-IE users are likely to start running into trouble once they start delving into a site's complex features and functionality.
And those complex features tend to be crucial when it comes to executing transactions on e-commerce sites.
"The Web is a chaotic place, and you will find no browser that can view all sites," said Hakon Lie, chief technology officer for Oslo, Norway-based Opera. "All browsers have this problem to some extent."
Some browsers have it more than others. Opera, for example, runs into trouble on several mainstream Web sites, including Salon.com and Apple Computer's Mac.com, that render perfectly in IE or Netscape.
Netscape has been taking an aggressive approach to the problem, monitoring sites where its "Gecko" rendering engine is running into trouble and prevailing on site administrators to fix the problem.
A joint Netscape-Mozilla team, formed two years ago, examined the 1,700 Web sites with the highest traffic to see how well they worked when viewed by Gecko. When the evangelism effort launched, only 60 percent of these pages worked properly, but Netscape claims to have boosted that number to 98 percent.
"Our evangelism efforts have garnished quite a bit of momentum in their outreach to Web developers," a Netscape representative said in an e-mail interview. But the "team continues to work with both corporate and individual sites to ensure Gecko compliance."
Opera's Lie estimated that he ran into trouble surfing with Opera on about one in 30 sites.
He also claimed that IE has seen its share of sites that it can't view properly. But because of IE's ubiquity, those glitches are likely to be fixed in a matter of days or hours, while problems with Opera or Mozilla languish on bug fix to-do lists.
The situation is reflected in the policies at Shutterfly, which makes no bones about its market-oriented approach to browser support.
"From the beginning, the situation has been that we listen to our customers and deliver what they ask for," said Whitney Brown, a representative for Shutterfly. "We have had very few requests for Opera--most of our users are on a PC using IE, and the next largest group is on a PC using Netscape. We have a pretty mainstream user base, which has moved away from the early adopters who may be aware of other browsers out there."
The site's browser preference page, which launched Wednesday during a visit using Netscape 6.2, notes that the company supports older versions of Netscape, including Netscape Navigator 4.7. Brown on Tuesday said the site's browser warning is out of date and that the site supports newer versions of Netscape--although it still does not support Opera and other less popular browsers.
Standards proponents point to several stumbling blocks beyond Web authors, including nonstandard extras included as part of IE and widespread use of nonstandard automated authoring tools from companies such as Adobe Systems.
Even though all the major browsers are considered to be up to snuff on standards compliance, some Web authors still find it easier to code directly to IE--and test only with IE--rather than to open standards.
In many cases, that means using nonstandard extras that Microsoft offers.
Mozilla.org, the open-source group that Netscape formed in 1998 to develop its browser, called those proprietary extras the legacy of Microsoft's maneuvers to become the leader in the browser market.
"The market power of IE, gained through illegal use of Microsoft's monopoly, means that Web developers find it convenient to use IE's proprietary extensions," said Mitchell Baker, who carries the whimsical title of chief lizard wrangler at Mozilla.org. "We do encourage Web developers to look to Web standards and to move away from proprietary extensions."
Opera took a similar tack, laying blame at the feet of both Microsoft and Web developers.
"I'm not going to put all the blame on Microsoft, though they do deserve some," Lie said. "The focus should really be on authors. They really need to test their pages. And maybe some of them have to adjust their ambitions slightly. If you try to do the very advanced, flashy stuff, you typically will get a page that will not operate with all browsers."
Now that so many of the Web's pages are coded by automated authoring tools, rather than by hand, much of the onus of standards-compliance has fallen to the vendors of authoring tools: Macromedia, Adobe and Microsoft.
The push to make authoring tools produce standards-compliant code runs up against the formidable obstacle that many Web surfers are using outdated, non-compliant browsers. If the authoring tool codes strictly to standards, it will lock out those legacy browsers.
Blame it on the browsers
And while Web authors may be more defensive than they used to be, some Web sites are still claiming that buggy browsers--even new ones--are preventing them from welcoming all comers.
"What we want to do is write once and have it work with everything," said Russ Sanon, senior manager for quality-assurance engineering at Shutterfly. "But it falls onto the lap of the individual browser manufacturer. There's nothing that we do that's proprietary. Everything that we write should work with W3C-compliant specs."
Some warn that while coding to IE may pay off in the short term, it could cost sites if the long-predicted shift to non-PC Web browsers transpires.
New W3C recommendations, particularly the HTML successor XHTML, are written to help Web authors accommodate the limited rendering capabilities of cell phones or PDAs (personal digital assistants). In many cases, this involves creating relatively automated ways of serving slimmed-down pages to small devices while showing full-featured pages in desktop browsers.
"If things are not built according to standards, you run the risk of having to do that content engineering all over again if you move to other devices," said W3C's Daly. "If you use a black-box proprietary format that doesn't port over to a handheld, then what? That's a strong business case for standards compliance."
But others continue to sound a more community-minded alarm, calling the persistent gap between standards and practice a threat to the Web's open character.
"What we're seeing with Web sites that are viewable only with IE is the privatization of the Web," said Mozilla's Baker. "And that's a dangerous setting. We're moving toward a world where all the capabilities of the Internet are reprocessed through a single filter, with Microsoft's business plan behind it."