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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: decent, usable design; 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, so 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..

Jeff Starr
About the Author Jeff Starr = Creative thinker. Passionate about free and open Web.
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30 responses
  1. Good points. I always try to support IE6 (and make it at least degrade gracefully to IE6). I always keep a trusty Virtual Machine of Windows XP with an old version of IE6 for testing. It’s a little more resource intensive on the dev machine but very quick to check a new feature in the old browsers.

    Supporting IE6 is like focusing on accessibility, it may sometimes seem futile but those edge case users will be happy for it.

  2. Older versions of good browser usually hover below the 1% so I ignore them. Firefox is getting interesting in that respect, 3.0 is still used by a significant number. But unlike the old IE versions, layouts won’t break that quickly in those browsers and I can live with minor pixel differences there. I do avoid float: right for some time to come though.

    Unfortunately I think IE6 will still be significant for at least another 1 or 2 years until most companies have upgraded to Win7

  3. My company does e-commerce design and consulting and after discussing it with my designer over last year we decided to stop specifically coding for IE6.

    So that will help our quotes, grab a few more merchants who then can decide if its important to them to support IE6.

    It will also save us a lot of headaches. I agree with Kristi H, if the client can share analytics info with us then we can make a decision if that particular client would benefit from IE6 compatibility coding. :-)

  4. “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.”

    For this reason I do not support beyond the latest release of modern browsers. Fortunately the bottom line for me is not money, so dabbling with the latest and greatest is not an issue.

    @OldGuy: 1) “Many probably don’t know there are alternatives. Therefore, I’m pretty sympathetic to them.”

    In cases where a user is unaware of superior browsing technology, a developer should not hesitate to educate their user base. This does not mean they should themselves thrust obnoxious notices around the site, informing them of their lower-grade browsing experience, but instead simply display a message upon entering the site, which does not detract from the UI and can be closed with ease; the contents of the message can be similar to Google Wave’s, or provide a link to a document on the site stating in concise, straightforward language the benefits of using a modern browser.

    @OldGuy: 2) “To support those older browsers, enabling them to continue to use outdated browsers, slows down transition to newer tools and is a detriment to the evolution of the web.”

    I agree completely with that, and will elaborate a bit more. Not only will the tireless support developers dedicate to older browsers slacken the evolution of the Web, it also supports a terrible misconception that I’ve noted a lot of end users to have.

    Here’s the example: An informed surfer who uses modern browsers will tell their friend that they should update their browser because it will make any site look better and perform faster; the uninformed surfer will reply that they’ve in fact seen their favourite Web sites in modern browsers and have observed no difference in the look. This is very often a legitimate rebuttal–there IS relatively no difference, but NOT because of inherent browser support–because a lot of high end Web sites have spent time making sure their designs work in poorer browsers like Internet Explorer.

    You must ask, then, if that user who uses the poorer browser actually did see a difference, would he have changed? I strongly believe he would. This is one reason why developers should not hesitate to educate their user base, or hesitate to remove support of older browsers.

    On the latest site that I’m developing, I will not be supporting older browsers, and I will not even go as far back as IE7 for Microsoft–at least not out of the box. I will instead let my users make informed decisions, and moreover allow users to enable an IE-friendly “fix” to the site if they absolutely refuse to enjoy the Web with better technology, or are unable to. The key is actually giving the user the choice to enable the fix.

    Users must see the ugly truth behind browsers like Internet Explorer. For too long we’ve put makeup on the so-called beast, as cosmeticians do to the scarred, ugly, and confident-void. Let users see for themselves; an upgrade won’t be far behind.

  5. Interesting write-up Jeff. I’m curious: of all the browser versions you test, what percentage of the time would you say there are actionable differences in rendering between browser versions? Let’s leave IE in it’s entirety out of that question.

    In my experience, it seems like there’s a problem difference very rarely- it’s usually more of the small rendering differences, just like those minor cross-browser issues that don’t really merit a fix, e.g. slightly different line-heights etc.

    I tend to do most of my testing in browsers one version back, and leave it at that, unless I expect there to be issues. Thanks for the interesting discussion!

    Trav

  6. I would have to say yes, Firefox 2 was awesome….

  7. Jeff Starr

    @Trav: Usually the rendering differences are few, but the further back you go the more discrepancies usually appear. It also depends on the site I am building. If the project doesn’t require pixel-perfect precision, then good versions of old browsers usually require very few additional styles. Conversely, pixel-persnickety designs (such as the current theme here) frequently require lots of “little” tweaks for even stuff like Safari 3 and Firefox 2. It’s all relative ;)

  8. Jeff,
    Why can’t some brilliant coder out there write a plug-in for all the crappy browsers that reads our current “modern” code and automatically fix the known issues?

    Wouldn’t it be great to have an IE6 plug-in that sees our modern browser code for the box model and makes the necessary changes to display them correctly?

    Obviously I am not a coder and this idea is probably crazy, impossible, or illegal, but has anyone tried something like this?

    Curious

  9. Jeff Starr

    Hey William, we can essentially do this by using something like Dean Edwards IE7. It requires the user have JavaScript capabilities, but that’s a pretty safe bet these days. When included in your site, the IE7 script will make IE5 and IE6 function like modern, standards-compliant browsers like Firefox and Opera. There are other solutions similar to this, but Dean’s script is excellent and highly recommended. So definitely not a crazy idea ;)

  10. SEO Nottingham February 22, 2010 @ 7:16 am

    I agree with “Boris”.

    All websites target different user bases and countries and depending on this, your website should target these areas. In the past I have worked on websites where 25% of the users were still using ie6.

  11. Jeff Starr

    I also agree with Boris, but new client sites usually lack such data. For existing sites and redesigns, traffic analysis is an ideal strategy, but new sites require a broader understanding of target audience, market trends, and design requirements. It’s rarely cut-&-dry, hence the discussion.

  12. Jeff (Starr) I’m not sure calling people who have little or no option to upgrade their browsers for whatever reason as ‘losers’ is not really how an inclusive web designer should be thinking!

    Given that ideally content on the web should be accessible to as many different people as possible — not just a technically savvy elite.

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