Should We Support Old Versions of Good Browsers?

I mean, basically anything except for Internet Explorer, which is a debate in and of itself. Here I’m referring to old versions of good browsers, like Firefox 2, Safari 2, Opera 8, and so on. It seems that older versions of these browsers are not as common as older versions of IE, so should we bother supporting them when designing our websites?

Most agree that we shouldn’t support old versions of crappy browsers like IE, but what about older versions of good browsers like Firefox, Opera, and Safari?

Backwards Compatibility

One of the cool things about adhering to Web Standards during web development is that, theoretically at least, your designs should look similar on all standards-compliant browsers. This is one of the reasons why we exclude IE from the conversation — it doesn’t speak the language, and requires a whole realm of special support in and of itself. But even for modern browsers like Firefox and Safari, a standards-based design does not always translate to presentational fidelity in older versions. So how far back should we go? Obviously there’s no reason to go out of our way to support, say, Firefox 1, but what about more recent versions such as 2 or even 3.0?

Rendering Differences

For many modern browsers, the older the version, the more inconsistencies you’ll find. Older versions of Opera are notorious for borking an otherwise perfect design, and the further back you go, the more borked your design is going to get. And for anyone who does support older Opera, you know how frustrating it can be to target and filter specific versions with CSS. The same is generally true for other modern browsers: supporting older versions can get messy, costing endless amounts of time and energy. There’s no reason to have your designs look identical across browsers, but they should at least be usable. Right?

Browser Testing

If anything is keeping me from completely ignoring older browsers, it is the ease with which they can be tested. Again excluding everyone’s favorite, IE, installing multiple versions of modern browsers is a breeze. For example, on my machines, I am running the following browsers:

  • Firefox 1, 2, 3, and 3.5
  • Opera 6 through 10
  • Safari 2, 3, and 4
  • Chrome 2 and 3
  • IE 5, 6, 7, and 8
  • Camino 1 and 2
  • Various Flocks

..as well as Lynx and a host of lesser browsers using the Webkit or Mozilla rendering engine. And even if you don’t install a million browsers locally, there are plenty of online services and software that make it possible to do cross-browser testing on virtually any browser with a few mouse clicks. But if it’s so easy to test all of these zillions of old browsers, does that mean we are obliged to do so?

Where do you draw the line between browser support and design expediency? At what point does market share mandate support for old browsers?

Market Share

When deciding how far back to go, market share is certainly an important factor to consider. With that bastard IE, most of us have no choice but to support older versions simply because so many losers are still using it. But for good browsers such as Opera and Safari, most users are quite savvy, understanding the game and always keeping their browsers updated with the latest and greatest. This is another reason to love modern browsers: they make the upgrade process a piece of cake — you don’t even need to think about it — it just happens. Thus, while we are still dealing with IE6 and lots of IE7 — even though IE8 is the current version — the percentage of Firefox 2, Opera 8, and Safari 2 users is very small.

Baseline Support

Given that it is important to maintain usability, presentation, and performance across older versions of modern browsers, where should the baseline be set? Is there some general rule of thumb that will help designers with an optimal support strategy? Perhaps something like this:

  • One version back - complete compatibility and presentational fidelity
  • Two versions back - design should be usable, but doesn’t need to look similar
  • Three or more back - don’t sweat it — cost versus reward not in your favor

Personally, I try to support as many browsers as possible, but much of what I do depends on the particular project I am working on. Not every site needs to be checked on every browser, so I try to take into account the stats and projected client-usage data. It’s all about context, and varies on a case-by-case basis.

But support baselines can be useful. A Perishable Press reader recently described his support baseline as such:

  • IE7+
  • Opera 9+
  • Safari 4+
  • Firefox 3.5+

His thinking is that older browsers:

  • Have security holes by nature, therefore isn’t it irresponsible to support them?
  • Reduce the ability for the site to look good and is bad practice, even within an organization
  • Give the website visitor a lower experience than they deserve and what they should expect
  • Generally run slower and reduce the appearance of speed for your site

While I can’t agree with everything in this list, he does make some good points. And more importantly, this designer has taken the time to think it out for himself and reach his own conclusions, which I think is very important.

It’s the User, Stupid

Ultimately, it may be argued, that it’s all about the user. Sacrificing the user at the altar of design expediency benefits only in the short term. Eventually, those development shortcuts are going to catch up with you one way or another. So if design is all about the user, I guess we’re obliged to test for each and every possible scenario regardless of market share — test every browser on every platform on every machine in the world. Of course this is ludicrous, but it begs the question: where do you draw the line between browser support and design expediency? At what point does market share mandate support for old browsers?

Food for thought..