Browser Wars – Bill Gates, Sir Jim, and You

IE-Haters Anonymous

Finally, there is help — and hope — for you.

Heeding this article may not keep you in good standing with the IT community, but the rest of the world — and your checkbook — will thank you for it. The first part is a 5-step program to letting go of what’s been holding you back. The goal is to shift your perspective from emotional to realistic and from a programming-engineering mentality to that of a business person in the real world.

But first, I am reminded of what may be no more than an urban legend, but makes the point nonetheless. Engineers at NASA supposedly spent millions of dollars developing an ink pen that could write in zero gravity, as ink pens are gravity-fed. Like so many other things, they engineered it and over-engineered it, making sure it met every possible specification for every possible use. The Russians used a pencil.

I’m able to share all this with you because I’m a business person with IT knowledge, not the other way around. And a business person is worth his salt only in how well they accurately perceive and deal with market reality. Being an uber-geek or the Alpha male in the IT department is the top of the wrong ladder when it comes to this. You are a skilled craftsman — an engineer. But the success of your product is only in small part determined by the prowess of your craft, and certainly not by doing what is “best” from a purely technical standpoint. It is determined by its usability, and in particular ACCEPTANCE by the users in the real world target audience.

Remember, Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, because of business sense, not programming skill. But I’m going too far, too fast. Let’s start with baby steps.

I. Give up your idealistic crusading — you are not a general in the browser wars.

This is not some ancestral wrong to be righted, as if Bill Gates stole someone’s sacred penguin in a former life and now his corporate heirs are living off its golden eggs. There is no open source holy land to win back. No one cares if someone bought up Boardwalk and Park Place before Netscape had the chance. Since when did brand names get dragged into socio-political debates, anyway? Who cares by what means of voodoo and buccaneering Bill dominated the market. While we are busy hating the capitalist rich and praising the … well … not-so-rich-just-yet other players, the marketplace whooshes past us. They don’t lose sleep over it — they’re too busy playing the game. We need to get our own game on.

But if it helps, think of Microsoft as the new Roman Empire. They were hated by most of the then-known world (regardless of the fact it brought peace and accessibility of things like plumbing and eduction to all, whether they liked it or not). They were bullies; they were saviors. There will always be a king of the hill to be despised and knocked down, whether it be Redmond on Wall Street or America in the United Nations. Straighten your tie, leave the water cooler tribe, and get over it. Why? Next point, if you please.

II. Realize you do not own a browser company

Once you get off the high horse of step 1 — and only then — will you be ready for this step. In the battle of the browsers, who wins the browser wars is NOT your concern. Market reality is, but we’ll get back to that in a later point.

Unless you own stock in it or work for MS, AOL, et alia, you have no reason to push brands on other people with taglines and “best viewed with” whore-links. The few people who care already made up their minds. People who don’t, such as your CUSTOMERS, think it’s geekish and pointless at best, annoying and unprofessional at worst. No one is switching browsers because they see “Take Back the Web” on a bunch of random web pages, except the politically fickle. But the point is … repeat after me: IT IS NOT MY CONCERN. My concern is to deal with market reality, not be the ant who tries to push the SUV of the web to the gas station of my preference.

III. Understand that standards are not always standards

Are your sites W3C compliant? Congratulations — you win a pocket protector. And if you sell it on eBay, you might get a few pennies more than you would from a rusty slide rule. That’s because W3C, no matter how well thought out in theory, is just an artificial, arbitrary standard. Yes, the IDEA of standards are really useful. But they are only helpful in the real world when they are ESTABLISHED in the real world, as in the case of say, metric (IS) weights and measures. At some point, they became “the” standard and not just “a” standard (a proposed standard).

But it seems some of you need the news flash again. W3C is not THE standard. A committee of armchair political techies who think they are saving the virtual world with their own IT wisdom does not establish a standard, no matter who they are and how good it may be. What is requires is wholesale compliance, starting with ALL the biggest players, which they do not have. In other words, it is more accurate to say that a significantly dominant practice, code, even brand, is the real standard, not a paper one. Right now it’s code that works in Internet Explorer.

Since all standards are established by action and not merely decree, we go back to the Romans. 2000 years ago, they did something genius. They made all their vehicles with a particular axle width (incidentally, the same width of American railroads once they became standardized). On one hand, if they didn’t do this instead of just making it a “law” (standard by agreement), it would have meant nothing. But they did.

The result? It was pointless for the leaders of other nations to “make” (declare) a standard of their own, even if some followed it, because most roads not only led to Rome, but were built by Rome. And most carts and such created grooves of the (true) standard width when using dirt roads. If your chariot axle width was your own choosing, you were likely to get stuck, and those complying to the less common “standard” would be passed by those who used the standard established by real life practice. So Rome didn’t merely decide on a standard when there wasn’t one — they actually did it, and it therefore became THE standard. But back to the present, as I think the reader is capable of seeing this as a clear analogy of the history of web standards and browsers.

So what about design considerations then? The above understanding doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ideally create design to work in other browsers. And it’s too easy in my opinion to make a site text-only friendly for the visually impaired not to. (In fact, a certain Microsoft web editing tool does most of that work automatically.) But common sense means doing two things.

Put down your cross and holy water if you haven’t already and design for Internet Explorer FISRT. If you are a web developer by profession, it may be a good idea to use that as your browser by default (O, the horror!) so you can see the web the way most people do. Use Firefox or Opera on your iMac or whatever you use for your personal machine if you have one, but seeing with the eyes of your audience goes a long way when at work. (Of course this goes the same for screen resolutions — you can always tell when someone designs page on a huge monitor and isn’t paying attention to this factor.)

The point is to NEVER ignore how IE renders your pages — like it or not, the people who use it are the lion’s share of any website’s target audience. You may as well put your best foot forward there if you can’t make a code or design work on all browsers. That would be like a French company tending a global market not having their website in English first, with French and other language options second, or worse yet not having it in English at all. To defy the market that way would be pride, not sense. So if it doesn’t work in IE and it’s necessary, drop it without hesitation or regret.

Now with your priorities finally straight, the question is how much time to spend on less-used browser compatibility? You have to decide case by case what is worth the trouble and what is not based on many factors. In the example of Rome, is your particular journey worth having an extra axle width in the trunk to more easily transfer a neighboring country’s lands? Some people today would have a cart for each one, or rather a separate page that pulls up depending on detected browser. It’s a lot of work for some low-paying projects, and not always necessary for big ones if you cross-design design and keep it simple. You have to weigh what your time is worth, and know it’s not always reasonable to expect to please everyone.

As long as essential features work and don’t look bad in the other browsers, you’ve done your job. My rule of thumb? If code or design that is very common doesn’t render on a rare browser (or similarly at a very large or small screen resolution) the viewer has these problem with everyone else’s web pages as well, so wont think ill of it.

IV. Stop making (and taking it) personal.

This step separates the men from the boys. It separates opinion from fact. What browser is best is opinion; which one is used most if fact.

Because most geeks never can make it past Step 2, doing something like defending the IE standard over W3C compliance is heresy. You will be burned at various user groups’ stakes, but not in the board room. So try to live with that. The W3C isn’t buying from your shopping cart or giving you visitors to beef up the worth of your ad space — real people are. Think of them first. Think of the children (COPPA compliance as needed, of course).

But if you defend this point to geeks, they think they are hurting your feelings when they use the term “good browsers” to your face to refer to non-IR clients. “Good” is an opinion, valid or not. “Dominant” is a statistical fact they can take up with God, the universe, and everything, if they don’t like it, but IT’S NOT YOUR BATTLE anymore. You’ve overcome your own denial. And “standard” is something business people and HTML jockeys will never agree on. But now you have the edge. Don’t rub it in their face.

Trust me — it doesn’t win friends.

So now you graduate. This last one is like the last of Buddhism’s “Ten Bulls” when the enlightened one (that’s you now, silly) goes back out into the world to shine for others.

V. Now you are ready to deal constructively with marketplace reality.

Recap what you’ve learned. It doesn’t matter what browser sucks more than another and by how much. It doesn’t matter if the richest man in the world dictates the direction of the web right now. What matters is that until you accept it — and make the best of it — you are still mentally in your parents basement fighting over why your PS-whatever is better than your best friend’s XBOX instead of doing your job.

The Roman Empire fell, as do all empires in politics and the corporate world. And if you did your homework above, it wont matter what is the dominant browser, platform, whatever. Garden of Eden or the New Babylon, following the “when in Rome” principle just makes business sense.

There. Is the monkey off your back, or should I expect hate mail?

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