It’s a swindle to support old browsers.

The eternal discussion: which browsers should we support? Should the site look exactly the same in IE7 as in the latest version of Chrome? Clients and designers are still struggling with these questions. According to many, websites have to look and behave the same everywhere, just like print work. A few years ago Adobe, a company that only recently started to understand the web a bit, sold a tool that could show a website in various browsers on top of each other so you could spot the pixel differences. Such a waste of everybody’s time.

Slowly people are starting to understand that pixel perfection has always been a myth. Just look at the way operating systems and browsers display letters. The discussion about support is getting easier but, to my surprise and annoyance, both clients and designers still struggle with it. Too often an unsatisfied client has called me because the letters in his browser didn’t look as pretty as the fancy PhotoShop design he had hanging on his wall.

Support suggests uniformity

Why is the support of old browsers a swindle? I’m of the opinion that all content and basic functionality of a website should be accessible for everyone. This is precisely why I think the web is so fantastic.

But the way that content is displayed, or the way a particular function is executed may vary per browser. Could even vary a lot. Even stronger, it has to be different.

What the exact differences are depends on several things. It depends, for instance, on the specific features of the browsers and devices. It also depends on the individual preferences of our visitors. You can safely assume that not a single visitor will see exactly the same design you see on your state-of-the art, daily calibrated monitor.

Away with uniformity

When I state that supporting old browsers is a swindle, I mean that it costs way too much money for the end result. Making a website look exactly the same in IE6 takes 100% more front end development time. IE7? 50% 18? Another 50%. That is a lot of money; you have to have some very good arguments to justify those costs. And those arguments don’t exist anymore. IE6 is barely seen in the Dutch statistics and IE7 and IE8 are very rapidly diminishing. Even Google has stopped supporting IE8! it is our job to properly inform our clients about this. And if they do have the money to support antique browsers, tell them that their money is better spent on making the site even more future proof. By optimizing for fat fingers for instance. Or game consoles. Or devices with GPS.

Disadvantage

The consequence of striving for uniformity on the web is that the worst browser decides what the newest browser gets to see. Great new technologies like GeoLocation, canvas and SVG can’t be used in a uniform situation because it can’t work everywhere. Striving for uniformity on the web gets us in the bizarre situation that people with advanced devices don’t get the ultimate experience. It holds back innovation and improvement.

But what then?

I’m a proponent of offering a minimal basic styling to the people using IE6, IE7 and IE8. Good readable text, simply styled in a single column, optionally with an informative warning about the deprecated browser. Such a layout is perfect for less powerful mobiles too. Layout and a bit richer design – like gradients, drop shadows, skewing and rounded corners – only get served to browsers that support CSS3. It is of no use to emulate graphic elements with images. The site will be slower, it’s harder to maintain and more expensive to make.

The paradox of support

One of the most important reasons we still have to support old browsers is the fact that we support old browsers. People with an old browser don’t realize that the web has changed, that things can be so much better because we make sure that things aren’t broken. Lets stop doing that.

Many thanks to Thijs Reijgersberg for translating this Dutch column!