What is Wrong With Your Web Browser

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Thursday, 25 August 2011 18:07

What is wrong with your web browser? Well, lots of things really, but before I go into that, we all need to understand exactly what a web browser is. Laugh if you will, but a non-scientific man-on-the-street style survey1 conducted by Google found that most people interviewed were not able to correctly distinguish between a web browser and a search engine. If you are unsure yourself, I found a reasonably good definition of the difference here.

OK, so now that we’re all clear that Google is not a web browser (unless of course it’s Google Chrome) and Internet Explorer isn’t a search engine, I can proceed.

So, why is it sometimes that you’ll be working with a web developer and you tell them that the site looks great but they need to remove the green borders from around all of the images and you hear them say, “Green borders? I’m not seeing those. What browser are you using?” I will tell you why.

Your Web browser is a translation device. It takes a document written in HTML and translates it into a formatted Web page. The result of this translation is a little like giving two human translators a sentence written in French and asking them to translate it into English. Both will get the meaning across, but may not use the same words to do so.

And it’s not only the type of browser that can cause discrepancies. There are a wide variety of variables, the most notable of which I will explain here.

Different browsers

The basic rules for translating HTML documents are established by the World Wide Web Consortium, which publishes the official standards. But there is considerable room for interpretation within those basic rules.

In general there are hundreds of different formatting characteristics that a developer can code into a web page, all of which are defined by HTML and other related standards. However, unless the developer specifically defines values for each and every one of them, every browser is going to impose it’s own default value, whether intended or not.

Different browser versions

The major difference between two versions of the same browser is usually their support for newer portions of the HTML language. A new browser is generally better at displaying Web pages than an old one. By ‘better’ I mean more compliant with HTML standards.

Over time, as browsers move towards compliance, we will begin to see uniformity across all platforms so that what you see on a page and what someone else sees will be the same.

Different computer types

The Macintosh is still used by only about 10% of computer users2, and has a very loyal following among graphic designers and publishers. In theory, if you view your page on both a PC and a Mac using the same version of the same browser, it should display the same, right? Not exactly.

Things such as the type of fonts available and the actual pixel size that fonts are rendered in can vary widely from a PC to a Mac. Not to mention that the Internet Explorer developed for the PC and the one developed for the Mac are essentially two different browsers.

Different screen sizes

This problem should be easy to avoid, yet a surprising number of otherwise well-designed Web sites don't fit within the standard 800 pixel PC computer screen. This is especially a problem for pages built by graphic artists using a Mac, whose standard screen size is 1024x768. Many designers forget that designing for an 800 pixel screen means using roughly a 750 pixel layout.

When these pages are displayed on smaller computer screens, the browser may not be able to fit all the content onto the screen. In these cases, the content will scroll off the right of the page. While this may not sound like much of a problem, users hate scrolling left and right to view a page.

Different font sizes

Most browsers allow users to customize their default font size. Many users who work on computers all day do this to reduce eye strain. As a result, user preference may can make the typeface that a page was designed in to increase as much as 50% larger in a user's browser. This increase in font size can hurt many carefully-planned page designs.

HTML errors

In practice, most the major browsers are robust and forgive many of these HTML errors. But not all browsers forgive the same errors. So your favorite browser may display your Web page without error, but another browser may be seriously affected by the same error.

Browser bugs

As you've probably noted by now, building a Web page that displays well on all browsers isn't easy. To make things worse, sometimes even if everything has been coded to a T, your page still doesn't display correctly. Don’t be so quick to blame the developer - you may have just encountered a browser bug.

Unfortunately, browser bugs are a fact of life for web designers. Each browser has its own unique set of errors and quirks that you have to adapt to. That's especially true with some versions of Internet Explorer that were rushed out the door to beat to beat competitors to the market.

So, hopefully this article has helped you to understand that it's not so easy to build a Web page that displays perfectly on every version of every browser running on every computer. And doing so may require you to leave out features that you really, really want to have on your Web page. Most people do not yet use a browser that is t fully compatible with HTML 5 - so it may be chancy for your developer to try to incorporate some of the nifty features, yet building a Web page that's entirely compatible with Version 1.0 of every browser would mean building a bland page filled with plain text. Ultimately, like any other design and building project there are always trade offs and compromises that must be made.

~Steve Barnes

1 YouTube Video - Question: What Is a Browser?
2 Mac Daily News