I wrote in this space
last week that your company needs to stop using Microsoft’s
Internet Explorer (IE) browser immediately. Due to unsolvable security holes
that have recently been demonstrated in IE, it looks like the free and
soon-to-be-released Firefox browser, a project of the Mozilla Foundation,
is becoming the new hot Web-surfing application of choice.
Will your company Web site be able to handle the hordes who are expected to
switch to Firefox — or will your crucial corporate home page
collapse in a cascade of error messages?
Cross-Browser Compatibility Is Important Once Again
Since its controversial bundling by Microsoft into Windows 98, IE has grown
to rule the roost. It boasted in June a 95% browser market share, according
to Web traffic statistics from
TheCounter.com (a service of Internet.com).
But you shouldn’t let IE’s current dominance lull you into testing your site’s
compatibility only with that one browser. Even one of Firefox’s harshest
critics, Michael Horowitz, says the new browser will get big fast. “I would
think at least 10 percent” of Web surfers will be using Firefox within 12
months of its release, he said in a telephone interview.
Horowitz operates a Web site called
ComputerGripes.com. In its pages, he complains about
things he doesn’t like about Firefox — and almost every other
computer program you can think of — but he reserves the lowest circle
of Hell for corporate sites that don’t work when viewed with Firefox.
It’s usually good to have links to your site from other sites. But this is
one page you don’t want to be mentioned on.
I found this out the hard way when a new version of an “expert tips” search
engine I developed called
aroused Horowitz’s ire. WinFind’s search results, which looked
perfect in IE, didn’t show up at all in Firefox. I was quickly able to fix this
— a “hidden” style was incorrectly making everything hidden in
Firefox — but would your own site be able to recover so easily?
A Few Major Gotchas To Watch Out For
You should immediately download the latest beta of Firefox — which at
this writing is
version 0.9.2, a stable build — and test your
company’s Web pages in it. Other important browsers to test include
Mozilla, a precursor to Firefox;
Netscape, the grandaddy of browsers.
These programs differ in many respects, but you should focus on a few major
problem areas to ensure your site will operate smoothly in all the above:
• No ActiveX or VBScript.
These proprietary Microsoft technologies have been criticized for years for
their lack of a built-in, ground-up, bulletproof security model. The latest
computer takeovers by
Russian hackers have made this weakness all too obvious.
Browsers other than IE don’t run the flawed components.
• Use Title Tags As Well As Alt Tags. Firefox and Mozilla
faithfully follow the rules of the World Wide Web Consortium
(W3C) and display Title tags,
but not Alt tags, as tooltips. IE for Windows displays both Alt and Title tags
as tooltips. IE 5 for the Mac, however, behaves as Firefox and Mozilla do.
Your site should use both Title and Alt tags properly. (See the “Alt” section
in this description.)
• Ignore the Microsoft Developer Network.
Ben Goodger, the lead engineer of Firefox development for the Mozilla
Foundation, explained in a telephone interview: “You should not rely on
MSDN as the only guide of what’s available or what should be used on the Web.”
This Microsoft site (and an associated magazine of the same name) is loaded
with Web development techniques that — surprise, surprise — only
work in IE.
Get Your Workarounds Ready
Switching your company’s default browser from IE to Firefox means you’ll
face some small but potentially frustrating differences in behavior. Here
are the most significant ones and the workarounds I suggest:
• Windows Update Is The Worst.
Microsoft’s Windows Update works only with IE. It’s coded so poorly that it
doesn’t even display a warning message in plain text in other browsers to
explain what’s going on. “I’ve got to figure they’ve done that on purpose,”
opines Horowitz. “A big company like Microsoft, with a site used as much as
Windows Update, I can’t believe that’s an accident.” Corporations that use
centralized patch-management servers instead of Windows Update don’t need
to worry. Otherwise, you can run Windows Update normally in IE by selecting
“Windows Update” from the operating system’s Start menu, which always works.
• Forget About Remote-Scanning Services. Web sites that offer to
scan your PC using ActiveX controls — which includes TrendMicro’s
and many other antivirus sites — won’t run in browsers other than IE.
To work around this, you can launch IE from the Start menu, as with the
Windows Update example described above.
• Use a Generic Add-In.
The easiest generalized fix for sites that don’t work well in Firefox is for
you to install IE View for Windows. This small (22 KB) extension adds a
“View Page in Internet Explorer” option to Firefox’s context menus, so the
choice is available at your fingertips. Over 190 other extensions are
already offered, and more are on the way.
IE may seem to have a crushing lead, but sophisticated
computer users are switching to competing browsers in greater numbers than
overall statistics indicate. At the Web sites that I myself operate for highly
technical PC users — such as
— almost 16% of the visitors are already using some version of Mozilla or
Firefox. IE makes up only 78% of these visitors’ browsers. And that’s down
from 81% as recently as January 2004.
That makes this the perfect time for your company to put cross-browser
compatibility on the top of your to-do list. The “preview release” of
Firefox will go live as soon as early August, according to Chris Hoffman,
the Mozilla Foundation’s director of engineering. The target for a full 1.0
release, including numerous international translations, is September 15.
That “gold” version will install perfectly over Firefox 0.9, Hoffman says.
It could be a lot cheaper for you to make some coding changes in your HTML
than it would be for you to watch a significant percentage of your customers
flee to other sites.