Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Browser wars part deux!

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Most people take browsers for granted and think of the browser wars as ancient history. Well they're back.

Some of this diversity is a good thing. But the problems of security and compatibility lurk beneath the surface.

Browser diversity

There are a surprising number of browsers out there and even a small site will get a fair spread of visitors. Judging from the visitors to this site (and discounting my own activity), we have:
  • Internet Explorer or IE (50%) with 3 versions
  • Firefox (36%) with 6 versions
  • Safari (7%) with 1 version
  • Opera (1.3%) with 5 versions
  • Others (5%) including Konqueror, Camino, Netscape, Mozilla (pre firefox), and the ever popular blank or noname.
I have yet to see a visit by a Flock user.

Recently Apple has been trying to make a big splash with Safari. They got themselves into a bit of hot water by being aggressive and misleading using the iTunes updater to install Safari on Windows, here. And looked a bit silly because the click through license disallowed installs on Windows, here.


Older browsers are vulnerable to all kinds of security problems and are actually unsafe on many pages.

Unpatched security vulnerabilities make it possible for criminals to easily infect computers by planting malicious code on web sites and waiting users to visit. It's been called "drive by downloading". It's not just reserved for fake websites and spam blogs, many legitimate web sites have been laced with nasty malware.

Security studies in 2005 and 2006 comparing IE with Firefox found that IE (v6) was unsafe 98% of the time! In fact, about 30% of our visitors are running unpatched browsers.
  • About 20% of the visitors to this site are running the insecure IE v6!
  • Also about 2.5% of visitors to this site are running insecure versions of Firefox.
Of course, not all vulnerabilities are equal and if you want to do some research, vulnerability information can be found at as well as numerous other websites. Click on one of these links for a vulnerability summary for IE7, IE6, IE5.5, IE 5.0, Firefox 2, Firefox 1, Netscape 7, Camino, Opera 9, Opera 8, Safari 1, and Flock 1.

Firefox can be supplemented by a variety of Add-ons which can improve both functionality and security. A few of my favorites are NoScript and Adblock Plus.


Older browsers are also functionally problematic. It goes beyond not supporting newer web functionality, some of them don't follow standards and require web developers to go through all kinds of quirky hoops to get even simple web pages to display properly in all browsers. IE6 and earlier were notorious for being non-standard. Developers even have a name for one of the problems, it's called Quirks Mode. It's been argued that Microsoft likes this because it promotes their lock-in. Developers by and large hate it because it destroys interoperability and promotes lock-in.

By way of example, when our web developer put together the "Forest Friends" page for the 433rd website the animals originally lined up properly only in IE. The site looked nasty in every other browser. Some experimentation and adjustment was required to get it working for standards based browsers like Firefox and Opera. If you look in the page source, you will see comments describing the gory details of how the page was adjusted.


One web developer has been so miffed by these problems, he started a campaign called End6! to get rid of IE6 (and earlier) non-conforming browsers. This was picked up by another group, here, and caused some controversy, here. Just to be clear, he's not trying to get rid of IE. Just old non-conforming IE.

Take the End6! test, here. Of course it requires JavaScript to be enabled.

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