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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 = Fullstack Developer. Book Author. Teacher. Human Being.
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30 responses
  1. Jeff Starr

    @Isiah: Good point, but this is a personal blog where I am free to express my opinions as well. Not that I really think of anyone as a loser, I was just trying to have fun and make the article interesting.

    One of the questions I think the article is asking is how many of those users with “little or no option to upgrade” actually exist and how to support them.

    I think everyone agrees that the Web needs to be accessible, but the “technically savvy elite” will always enjoy a better online experience than the everyday user.

  2. Andreas Kuckartz June 20, 2010 @ 4:13 am

    There are further relevant aspects. How relevant is each of the users of obsolete browsers for the client?

    In an extreme case the client has exactly one customer on which he depends. What if that customer uses a specific obsolete browser?

    In not so extreme cases the users of obsolete browsers might be the most important ones for the client. But the opposite might also be true: the interesting customers might be those using breeding edge browsers.

    It really depends. Know your client and his or her customers.

  3. after testing so many versions and browsers what’s your take on which is the 1. best 2. fastest 3. lightest browser?

  4. Jeff Starr

    Good question. I have seen actual performance tests elsewhere online, and if I remember correctly, I think that Opera is generally known as the fastest browser, but things may have changed since last looking into it. In my experience, Chrome, Safari, and Opera are all very fast and lightweight. Even so, I prefer Firefox because of its massive extensibility. I run around 30 extensions that make Firefox a powerful design and browsing tool, but performance is less than it would be without the added extensions.

    Bottom line: I think that Firefox is the best browser for my needs, but not necessarily the fastest or lightest because of the extensions. For me, the trade-off is worthwhile.

  5. Timothy Warren July 2, 2010 @ 6:43 am

    For my personal website, I don’t support IE. Period. In fact, some of the stuff on my website requires a development version of a browser.

    For client websites, I test in the latest versions of Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, as well as the evil trio of IE versions.

  6. Daquan Wright July 3, 2010 @ 8:14 am

    Whenever I think about the browser wars, designing for them, etc. I also end up thinking about game developers and the ‘platforms’ they design for initially. For instance the xbox 360 is preferred by many companies due to its higher end graphics, so many teams will build a multi-platform game for the xbox and then port it over to the PS3/Wii.

    Sure games are different, but we’re still dealing with platforms and developers so the concept remains the same. I believe it’s optimal to design for good browsers (and IE is losing market share to FF although I’m not currently keen on how much, plus Safari is standard on macs). I always develop with Firefox/Opera first, then I create extra style sheets for different versions of IE. It is important to support IE due to the large market share, but don’t break your back over it. You didn’t design the browser, you can’t control how the browser renders your page all the time. All you can do is give it your best and apply what you know to at least make the page usable.

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