The Varieties of Web Browsers

A web browser is a program on your computer which allows you to view web pages. You’re using one right now!

By most estimates, about 50% of web users see the web through Internet Explorer for Windows. This is rarely through deliberate choice, however; the browser comes installed on all Windows PCs, and most web users probably think of it simply as the button you have to click to get onto the internet. There are in fact many other browsers, all of which are safer and more reliable than Internet Explorer.

New Techniques v Old Browsers

Things move fast in the world of web design: new techniques become available to designers all the time. But these techniques can only work when browsers are updated to accommodate them.

A browser’s useful lifetime is quite short: even a three–year–old version will be noticeably more limited and less versatile than the latest version of the same browser. Anything over five years old will not recognise some of the design techniques commonly used in modern websites, and should be considered obsolete.

Most browsers are updated frequently to take account of the newest techniques and, more importantly, the latest security features. Internet Explorer, on the other hand, gets updated rarely: version 7 was released in 2006, five years after version 6. And five internet years is a long, long time! (If you are using Internet Explorer, you can check the version by going to ‘Help’ at the top of your screen, then clicking ‘About Internet Explorer’.)

Why Bother Changing?

Most users of sub–standard browsers are probably happy with what they have. So why bother changing to a better browser?

A browser is the device through which you experience a web page. Using an old browser to view a modern, professional–quality website is like using a small black–and–white portable television to watch a high–quality DVD or Blu–Ray disc: you’ll get the basic experience, but you will miss out on most of the refined features. Web browsers, unlike televisions, are all free, so there’s really no excuse not to use the latest version!

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Here are the main browsers:

For Windows operating systems

For Macintosh operating systems

Notes

  • The AOL browser is a camoflagued version of Internet Explorer for Windows.
  • The last version of Internet Explorer for Macintosh has been obsolete for several years, and can no longer be downloaded. Microsoft has no plans to revive it.
  • If you are using Linux, you probably won’t need to be told where to look!

In common with most web professionals, our personal favourite at the moment is Firefox: it’s fast, it has plenty of features, it doesn’t crash too often, and it gets updated frequently.

Browsers take up very little space in a typical modern computer’s memory, so why not try several and see which you prefer?

Limitations of Web Browsers

There are dozens of browsers currently in use, most of which come in several versions. Unfortunately, none of them agree on precisely how to represent every element of a web page. This is an insoluble problem for web designers; it is simply impossible to create an interesting design that works correctly in every version of every browser.

The compromise we have chosen is to create websites that:

  • work correctly in all of the modern visual browsers that abide by web standards;
  • work appropriately in non–visual browsers such as screen readers (see our Accessibility section for information about these);
  • and display the words and images correctly in obsolete browsers, though with no guarantee that the precise layout will work. In this context, an obsolete browser is one that was released more than five years ago. This includes Internet Explorer version 6, which came out as long ago as 2001 (and wasn’t very good even then).

Websites that are guaranteed to display perfectly in certain obsolete browsers will normally cause problems for the vast majority of visitors who use modern browsers. We will not create websites in this way unless specifically requested to. Our Accessibility section discusses some of the legal and other implications of designing for obsolete browsers.

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