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Browser Overload

September 18, 2008
at 12:00 pm PST

Lately I’m having flashbacks to the browser wars of the last century. For those too young to remember, that was the era circa 1997 when browser purveyors (Microsoft, Netscape, the Opera team, etc) were releasing a browser update about every week, and those of us in the business of running Web sites were constantly scurrying to make sure our sites For those of us who work on Web sites, this was an exciting time but also a nightmare of browser compatibility issues, where every new browser release held the possibility of making some of the millions of our pages appear inexplicably broken. As the world stabilized a couple of years ago with Internet Explorer 6 and 7 and Firefox, it seemed all was right in browserland, and we could move on to other challenges. But, it was the calm before the storm. First, of course, there are all the new “web clients” in the form of browsers on mobile platforms. At Cisco, we’ve made a conscious decision to keep our mobile interface simple and fast, since we know that’s what users on the go really want. You can visit it at our Cisco.com mobile site, m.cisco.com. But new desktop browsers are flooding in again, too. First, Safari for the Mac — which sometimes behaves differently from the other two — appeared on the scene. IE7, of course, has undergone several updates, all of which need testing. Firefox 3 was recently recently released (or escaped), with a much faster renderer but enough bugs and incompatibilities to drive some early adopters to downgrade back to the earlier version. Very recently, the Chrome browser from Google was released — which of course drove our team to scramble in testing various key pages to make sure they behaved well with this new kid on the block. And, if all that weren’t enough, when I was visiting the Web 2.0 Expo this week I was reminded that Microsoft is readying Internet Explorer 8, which is available for beta download today and should be ready for the masses in a few months. Here is Microsoft’s Sharon Cohen demo’ing it: image This first thing that indicated trouble brewing was the “compatibility” mode button built right into the IE8 interface. I am sure this will go away with the final release, but it’s scary to anyone like me who works on the Web because it means some of my pages might not work in the new browser — even if they have been painstaking tested to work today. For instance, mostly our Cisco.com site looks fine in IE8, but one page that Sharon and I looked at had an odd layering problem. This is a page that works fine in all of the browsers today. There’s actually a line of code that Microsoft is providing us Web types to make sure that our pages will be compatible with the new browser if you can’t test and fix each page. You’re supposed to put this in the header of every page to ensure compatibility: <meta http-equiv=”X-UA-Compatible” content=”IE=EmulateIE7″ /> or make sure the equivalent is send in the http header on a per-site basis.All of us here on the Web team are hoping this won’t be necessary. Oh, I knew there was something I didn’t like about the last century!

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