What is cross browser testing? First, lets start with the basics. While we “computer geeks” think “who doesn’t know what a browser is?”, recent surveys have shown that it’s a staggeringly high number. A web browser is the application you start when you want to go to a website. For the majority of users, this is Internet Explorer. The icon look like a little blue “e” with a ring around it. This browser comes pre-installed with every version of the Windows Operating System and many people don’t take the time, or even know that there are other internet browsers available.
While Internet Explorer is still the most widely used browser, it’s numbers have been dropping at a fairly steady rate. The reason for that is because Windows has been slow to update their browser over the last decade. In the mean time, several new upstart companies have popped-up and started making faster, more secure browsers. The newer browsers also allow the user to add “Plugins”, which are little mini-applications that run within the browser, giving it additional functionality. Here’s a chart showing usage statistics of browsers so far this year.
|Statistics provided by w3schools.com|
|November||67.4 %||6.8 %||19.2 %||3.9 %||1.5 %|
|October||66.5 %||6.9 %||20.0 %||3.8 %||1.4 %|
|September||65.9 %||7.2 %||20.6 %||3.6 %||1.4 %|
|August||64.0 %||6.6 %||21.2 %||4.5 %||2.2 %|
|July||63.3 %||6.5 %||21.6 %||4.9 %||2.5 %|
|June||64.8 %||7.1 %||21.3 %||3.8 %||1.8 %|
|May||64.9 %||7.1 %||21.5 %||3.8 %||1.6 %|
|April||63.9 %||8.0 %||21.6 %||3.8 %||1.5 %|
|March||63.7 %||7.7 %||22.1 %||3.9 %||1.5 %|
|February||62.5 %||8.0 %||22.9 %||3.9 %||1.5 %|
|January||61.9 %||7.8 %||23.4 %||3.8 %||1.6 %|
December61.6 %8.0 %23.6 %3.7 %1.6 %
|Statistics provided by w3schools.com|
|November||60.1 %||9.8 %||23.4 %||3.7 %||1.6 %|
|October||60.4 %||9.5 %||23.4 %||3.9 %||1.6 %|
|September||59.6 %||9.9 %||24.0 %||3.6 %||1.6 %|
|August||60.1 %||8.3 %||24.7 %||3.7 %||1.8 %|
|July||59.8 %||8.5 %||24.9 %||3.5 %||1.7 %|
|June||59.3 %||8.8 %||25.1 %||3.7 %||1.8 %|
|May||59.2 %||8.9 %||24.9 %||3.8 %||1.8 %|
|April||58.4 %||9.4 %||25.0 %||4.0 %||1.8 %|
|March||57.5 %||9.7 %||25.6 %||3.9 %||1.8 %|
|February||56.4 %||9.8 %||26.4 %||4.0 %||1.9 %|
|January||55.7 %||10.2 %||26.9 %||3.9 %||1.8 %|
Of the other browsers, there’s only a few that get used enough to be notable. Currently, at the time of this writing, Google Chrome is the most used browser, followed by the Mozilla’s Firefox Browser and then Microsoft Internet Explorer. Safari, which is the default browser installed on Apple products is in forth place. And finally, bringing up the rear, but still quite a solid browser is Opera, which for some reason, tends to get used more over-seas than it does here in the states. Also, as of this week, Amazon announced their own new browser called “Silk” that will be shipping with their new reader, the Kindle Fire, Full Color 7″ Multi-touch Display, with Wi-Fi If you’ve never tried any of these other browsers, go get them and try them out. Not all at once, that will likely just confuse you. Instead, pick one and just use it exclusively for a week or two until you start to get comfortable with it, then decide how much you like it. Different browsers are built with different users in mind. Don’t be worried about installing any of them. These are all good, solid browsers. If you’ve been using Internet Explorer, it’ll still be there on your machine (in fact, Windows can’t run without it as it’s built into the Operating System itself). If you don’t like any of these browsers after giving them a fair shake, simply uninstall them.
Okay, why this whole pre-lesson? Because it is important for you as a future web site owner to understand that there are actually many browsers out in the world being used by all sorts of users and on different devices. This list doesn’t even take into account mobile browsers, nor does it take into account the browser version numbers. For example, there are still some people using Internet Explorer version 6, while others are using version 7, others still are using version 8 and still more are using version 9. As if that weren’t enough, Internet Explorer version 10 is rumored to be just around the corner. Now, here’s where it starts getting tricky. First, consider that each of these versions uses different rendering engines which ultimately means that the very same code often will look and behave differently in each of these browsers. Even the same version number can look different on different operating systems. For example, Internet Explorer 8 behaves differently on Windows XP than it does on Windows Vista or Windows 7.
Next, consider that the same is true for each of the other browsers I mentioned above. Firefox 7 just came out last week, but I personally know a few users who are still using version 3.6. The differences in the way these two browsers render a page is pretty massive. Safari behaves differently when running on Windows than it does when running on Apple computers. Not complex enough for you yet? Okay, let’s throw screen size, shape and resolution into the mix now. What may look magnificent on a 21 inch widescreen can look absolutely unusable to a user who’s still using an old 800px x 600px CRT monitor.
So, how do you deal with all of these variables and inconsistencies? That’s where Cross Browser Testing comes into web site development. There is no doubt to any web developer that cross-browser compatibility is still one of the most complex issues when it comes to building a website. In the last several years, there have been big pushes for “Web standards” from the web designer community, which are supposed to help guarantee consistency across browsers. However as things go, it’s a slow-moving process and no browser is perfect. Older browsers specifically have always been a thorn in the side of developers who want to use newer, better practices because older browsers do not understand a lot of the new code. Older versions of Internet Explorer have many bugs when rendering CSS, so as a developer, you have to know about these bugs and how to work around them.
Does this mean that every user using any browser will get the exact same experience? Absolutely not. Nor, should they. You wouldn’t expect someone watching a brand new movie on an old black and white screen TV to have the same experience as someone that’s watching it on their new Plasma screen, would you?
So, how do you deal with it? There are a few techniques known as “Graceful Degradation” or “Progressive Enhancements”, where the general idea is to give the best possible experience to someone using a new cutting-edge browser, while users using old browsers still get a good experience on your site, but simply miss-out on some of the extra little bells and whistles. Since they’re using an old browser, they won’t even realize they’re missing anything and truth be told, so long as your site renders decently and they’re able to easily accomplish what they came to your site for, there shouldn’t be any problems. Maybe they don’t see a pretty drop-shadow or get a square corner instead of a rounded corner on a box. So, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going to like your site or be able to read your content, make a purchase, or whatever the purpose of your site is.
Browsers Testing is an Absolutely Necessary Part of Web Development
Non Professional web site builders are typically not even aware of these problems and inconsistencies and because of this, they don’t take the time to check to make sure that anyone visiting your site will get an acceptable experience. They will only see that it is working on the computer that they are building the site on and in the one browser that they are checking it in and they think that means that their job is done. Far from it! Sometimes, browser testing and fixing issues can take up half of the time of the total project, depending on how far back you want to support browsers.
Speaking of which, as of recently, we no longer test Internet Explorer version 6. None of the top companies (Google, FaceBook, Microsoft, WordPress, etc.) bother testing for IE6 any longer because its usage is now so low, that it no longer warrants the time and effort that it would take to make it work as well. In addition to the time it takes, it also takes a lot of extra coding and sometimes extra images. Ultimately, that makes your site more complicated to move forward with in future development and it slows your site speed down for users. That can penalize you in the Search Engines Results. Microsoft themselves have asked web developers to “Please stop making sites that are backward compatible for IE6”. Even Microsoft no longer builds their sites compatible for IE6 and it’s their product. It’s a browser that is now over 10 years old and it’s time to move on to newer, better browsers. There is no point in developing for such a small percentage that continues to get smaller by the day. It’s a much better idea to build with the future in mind, not the past.