The legacy of the browser wars

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The legacy of the browser wars

With the announcement a month or so ago that Internet Explorer will no longer be released as a stand-alone product, it became apparent that the only evolution in browser technology will be those which come from the Opera or Mozilla stables. Seems that although MicroSoft won the war, it couldn’t really be bothered with the long term upkeep of the territory it had claimed.

(There’s a worrying real life parallel here involving countries, but this is neither the time nor the place.)

And now, banished from the webscape, Netscape has finally been laid to rest by those in charge at AOL deciding to shut the project down completely. Part of me feels a little sad – Navigator was the first browser I used and one I swore by until I became a web developer. After that my attitude towards it changed completely – sentiment aside, it was a buggy piece of shit and I’m glad it’s gone forever.

So here we are – five years later and the dreams of standards compliant browsers delivering an even playing field across platforms is further away than ever. Sure, if everyone switches to Mozilla or Opera then bleeding edge sites will work perfectly without tricks and hacks. But with the masses sticking with the default install of IE that they get with their new windows based machine, it seems unlikely that the sheer scale of infestation managed by MicroSoft will be diluted any time soon.

It took many years before most web developers became brave enough stand up for themselves and refuse to support Netscape Navigator 4.77. And even in its heyday that only had around 40% of the market. So what of IE 6 and its overwhelming domination?

Just how long will it be before web developers can stand up and say to clients “My advice is not to dumb down your site or fill it with hacks in order to support IE 6.”

And while all this is going on, we’re right in the middle of the Search Engine Wars (TM), except that nobody has even noticed. Like a seemingly innocent friend who has lulled you in over time and before you know it you’re robbing banks and gunning down innocents, Google is quickly and surely changing the search engine landscape.

Except that Google is everybody’s buddy. Surfers and Bloggers everywhere love Google, even admins use it as the indicator that their LAN is connected to the outside world. On the face of it, there seems nothing sinister about the funky search portal that has come from nowhere to be the homepage and point of internet entry for millions of surfers around the globe.

The browser wars are over and there is no going back. As web developers we have to live with their legacy and simply accept the way in which visitors to our sites are blinkered by the limitations of their aging browser.

But do we sit back and accept a similar fate for the way in which visitors find our sites?

Will the web developer in a client meeting, circa 2007 be saying; “Although I advise against supporting the now defunct IE 6, I would suggest we code the site in such a way that it ends up with a higher page-rank when it’s Google’d. Unless of course you want to directly pay Google for higher a ranking. We could go with their basic service, which only costs a thousand dollars for every appearance you make in the top five of a given search result…”

It’s only when you take a step back from the river that it’s apparent how fast the current is flowing toward the innevitable.

The choice is whether to jump back in and ride the rapids to the unfortunate end or to at least try and stem the flow.