How to Design for Different Browsers | WebReference

How to Design for Different Browsers

How to Design for Different Browsers

Excerpted from Web Design in a Nutshell, 3rd Edition by Jennifer Niederst Robbins. ISBN 0-596-00987-9, Copyright © 2006, 2001, 1999 O'Reilly Media, Inc. All rights reserved.

Chapter 2. Designing for a Variety of Browsers

Table of Contents

2.1. Browser History
2.2. Browser Roll-Call
2.2.1. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6
2.2.2. Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 and 5.5 (Windows)
2.2.3. Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 (Macintosh)
2.2.4. Netscape Navigator 7
2.2.5. Netscape Navigator 4
2.2.6. Firefox 1.0
2.2.7. Opera 8.5
2.2.8. Safari
2.2.9. America Online
2.2.10. Lynx
2.3. Gathering Usage Statistics
2.3.1. Global Browser Statistics
2.3.2. Server Log Analysis
2.3.3. Targeted Statistics Consulting
2.4. Learning from Browser Statistics
2.4.1. What You Can Learn
2.4.2. Browser Usage Trends
2.5. Dealing with Browser Differences
2.5.1. Document Authoring
2.5.2. Style Sheet Tactics
2.5.3. Programming
2.6. Know Your Audience
2.7. Test!

Most web authors agree that the biggest challenge (and headache) in web design is dealing with a multitude of browsers and their varying support of web standards. Does a page that is designed to be functional on all browsers necessarily need to be boring? Is it possible to please everyone? And if not, where do you draw the line? How many past browser versions do you need to cater to with your designs?

The situation is better than it was a few years ago, but the struggle is not over. For instance, you can now be confident that at least 99% of users have browsers that support nearly all of HTML 4. Unfortunately, there are still inconsistencies in the way Cascading Style Sheets are implemented. And of course, older browser versions that pre-date the current standards take a long time to fade away entirely.

This chapter provides background information, statistics, and current wisdom from professional web designers that may help you deal with browser differences. It focuses on the traditional graphical computer-based browsers that developers generally keep in mind. Web browsing clients for mobile devices are discussed in Chapter 3, and assistive browsing devices for the disabled are addressed in Chapter 5.

The story of the browser provides useful context for the way web sites are currently designed and developed. This brief and simplified timeline highlights a few of the significant events in the development of the major browsers that have led to the current web design environment.


If you are interested in the history of browsers and the Web, take a look at the thorough timeline and the old browser emulators at Deja Vu (

1991 to 1993: The World Wide Web is born.

Tim Berners-Lee started his hypertext-based information management at the CERN physics research labs. Text-only pages could be viewed using a simple line-mode browser.

1993: NCSA Mosaic is released.

The Mosaic browser was created by Marc Andreessen, a student at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) . Although it was not the first browser to allow graphics to be placed on the page, it was certainly the most popular due to its cross-platform availability. The ability to add images to documents was one of the keys to the Web's rapid rise in popularity. Mosaic also supported sound, video, bookmarks, and forms. All web pages at this time were displayed in black text on a gray background .

1994: Netscape 0.9 is released.

Marc Andreessen formed Mosaic Communications Corp. (which later became Netscape Communications) and released the Netscape 0.9 browser. The early browsers were not free (except to students and teachers). To offer a superior experience over such freely available browsers as Mosaic and thereby attract customers, Netscape created its own HTML tags without regard for the traditional standards process. For example, Netscape 1.1 included tags for changing the background color of a web page and formatting text with tables.

1996: Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 is released.

Microsoft finally got into the Web game with its first competitive browser release, complete with its own set of tags and features. It was also the first browser to support style sheets, which at the time were an obscure authoring technique.

1996 to 1999: The Browser Wars begin.

For years, the web development world watched as Netscape and Microsoft battled it out for browser market dominance. The result was a collection of proprietary HTML tags and incompatible implementations of new technologies, such as JavaScript, Cascading Style Sheets, and Dynamic HTML. On the positive side, the competition between Netscape and Microsoft also led to the rapid advancement of the medium as a whole.

1998: Netscape releases its Communicator code under an open source license.

This bold move enabled the thousands of developers to participate in improving Communicator. In the end, they decided to scrap it all and start from scratch. The Mozilla group, made up in part of Netscape employees, guided the development of the open source browser and soon expanded to a complete application platform.

2000: Internet Explorer 5 for the Mac is released.

This is significant because it is the first browser to fully support the HTML 4.01 and CSS 1 Recommendations, setting the bar high for other browsers in terms of standards compliance. It is also the first browser to fully support the PNG format with alpha transparency.

2000: Netscape is sold to AOL.

This was regarded as Netscape's official loss to Microsoft in the Browser War. Entwined in the operating system of every PC running the Windows operating system, Internet Explorer was a formidable foe. Netscape lost important ground by releasing bloated all-in-one applications and taking several years off to rewrite its browser from scratch for the Netscape 6 release. As of this writing, Netscape is just a blip on the browser usage charts at a mere 1% for all combined versions, compared with approximately 90% for all combined versions of Internet Explorer.

2003: The Mozilla Foundation is formed.

Open source Mozilla code continued development under the newly formed Mozilla Foundation (funded in part by AOL).

2005: Mozilla's Firefox browser is released.

Firefox 1.0 caused much fanfare in the development community due to its strong support of web standards and its improved security over Internet Explorer. Firefox is important because it was the first browser to make a significant dent in Microsoft's share of the browser market.



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Created: March 27, 2003
Revised: April 17, 2006