Old Browsers: Do they still exist?
I've been thinking about this for a long time and while I thought I had a solid opinion on the matter, I find myself waffling on the issue.
Who cares about older browsers?
If you haven't done so, I highly recommend cracking out a copy of Firefox 1. Start bouncing around to a few sites and check out what's broken. Sure, most stuff is fine but you'd probably be surprised at what's broken. What about Firefox 2? I have more people using this old version of Firefox than I do of all Opera users put together. These are browsers that I don't check my site in any more. In a way, it's like they don't even exist.
As web browsers have progressed, we've increasingly gotten to the point where we just ignore old browsers like they don't exist. No more testing, no more hacks, no more nothing. Who knows what it looks like? Is it good, is it bad? Does it even matter?
My initial stance
My initial stance was that every browser mattered. It doesn't matter if they're coming in with Netspace 1.0 or Internet Explorer 3. These people are armed with a browser and they deserve content. No, they don't get any CSS, or maybe a limited amount. Only the recent browsers get the good stuff.
We draw a line in the sand that says, "You popular browsers, stand over here. Everybody else, just be happy you got content."
More specifically, a base style sheet would declare some default font styles but no float or other layout tricks. Just linear content. This default would look decent in any browser, no matter from what era. It makes a great print style sheet, too.
Then, for those cool, fancy browsers that we know and like, we give them the good stuff. The whole enchilada.
Two major issues here:
- How can you tell that you have a current browser?
- What can you assume about browsers that haven't come out yet?
With Internet Explorer, it's really easy: we have conditional comments that we can use to target specific versions. Now for the rest of them? Unfortunately, the best way (that I can think of) is to use user agent sniffing on the server to serve up the extra stylesheets only if the visitor has a browser within the subset that we find acceptable.
On that second point, what happens when a new version comes out? Or somebody says they're "compatible" with another engine and your user agent sniffing serves up something limited. Basically, it becomes difficult to future-proof something for any length of time.
My softened stance
My pragmatism comes into play, like that little devil and angel on my shoulders telling me each side of the story. The fact is, these are old browsers. Why haven't these people upgraded? Why are all these people still using Firefox 2? So what if it's a little (or a lot) broken for them. They should upgrade.
Obviously, Internet Explorer 6 is the oddball here. She's that awkward girl who doesn't understand social cues and realize that the party is over. It's the elephant in the room, as it were. Too big to ignore. But right! We have a way to target IE browsers by version. We can use our conditional comments to tailor for IE6 until it disappears. We can feed it the limited CSS and let everybody else get the fun stuff.
When it comes to market support, I've often looked at it as one big pie. You may say that Opera is too small to really care about. It's only 2%. You don't care about Firefox 2 users. It's only 2%. You may not care about accessibility issues. It's only 2%. Soon enough, you've whittled down your potential market to 90% of what it could have been.
Every site, whether it be for personal or professional reasons, needs to mark that line in the sand. If you're running a content-heavy, large traffic site targetting a less than savvy crowd then maybe IE6 and FF2 support is critical. You want to capture as much of the market as you can. If you're running a niche blog focused on tech issues then even IE6 might be safe to put on the ignore list.
But all the while, I'll keep thinking about all those people I could be getting. Did they walk away with the best experience? Sometimes it hurts my head just to think about it. So now it's your turn: Should we care about old browsers or fringe browsers? Or are we safe in our little bubble?