Which Browsers matter in 2006?

BrowsermixIf you are planning to build or rebuild a site this year you may wonder at some point which browsers you should support. If not, you should! Just looking at your new design in IE 6 is no guarantee it works and behaves the same in any other browser.

Not that long ago the browser shortlist consisted of IE 6, combined with IE 5, IE 4 & Netscape 4. And maybe some other occasional ‘weird’ browser. But times have changed and are changing. IE 4 & Netscape 4 are ancient history, support for IE 5 has been dropped in most cases by Microsoft itself. And there are emerging new browsers, either driven by innovation or security issues.

So what browsers should you support today and for the upcoming year(s)? Simple question, simple answer: Check your visitor stats and build/optimise for what they use.

Some sites still have 90% of visitors using IE 6. Others are reporting that Firefox has surpassed IE as their main browser. As for me, I found that the top browser for december on ThinkLemon.com was … Safari. So it totally depends on your site. Some public stats: W3Schools and Boing Boing (both high-traffic sites)

If you don’t have any stats, get a free or paid counter ASAP and let it gather data for a while. But if you’re building a new site and thus cannot gather stats yet, let me give you a generic rundown of current browsers (IMHO).

Executive summary:
Do: IE 6+, Firefox 1.5+, Safari 2+, Opera 8.5+
(That should cover 95% of your visitors)
Play Nice: IE 5+, Firefox 1+, Safari 1+, Opera 8+
Forget: IE 4 & older, Netscape 7 & older, Opera 7 & older, IE 5 for Mac

Microsoft Internet Explorer ~90%

Logo Internet ExplorerWhatever people are saying. Internet Explorer 6 is still king. I don’t see this one disapearing any time soon. It is the default browser on Windows so most people will keep on using it. Even if a good deal of Windows users switch browsers, just because of the power of numbers it’ll be a force to reckon with. Overall statistics report this one at less than 90% marketshare, but definitely check your own stats.

Some time this year, hopefully, a new version of IE will appear. But it is not for everyone. IE 7 will only work on the latest Windows releases (XP SP2 and Vista).
Furthermore, having witnessed previous transitions from one IE to the next version, leads me to believe that it’ll take us well beyond 2006 (maybe 2007) for it to take a large enough marketshare and replace IE 6. Microsoft is also taking care that the new IE will not break most sites currently supported with IE 6. In short: do not worry.

Then there’s the other IE. Support for IE 5 is rapidly declining. Luckily I can see a declining trend on visitors with this browser. So my best bet is to fix the ‘in-your-face’ errors for this one, but leave the rest as-is. If it doesn’t look completely as planned, so be it. (One sidenote: It’s a different story when your company still has large numbers of workstations with IE 5.)

Do not bother with IE 4. Unless you’re running an IE 4 museum.

Mozilla Firefox ~10%

Logo FirefoxFirefox is little more than a year old and its marketshare reportedly is already around 10%. Though that number depends on your site. Some people already see it as their main browser (probably early-adopters, tech-savvy kind of sites) with numbers above the 30% of visitors. I’ve seen numbers from a large site where Firefox hovered around the 6%. Whatever the exact numbers, in most cases it’ll be the number one alternative browser. So if you’re concerned that most of your visitors can see and use your site, this is the one to take into account.

Added bonus when supporting Firefox is that you’ll automatically support Netscape (yes it’s still around), Camino, Seamonkey and other browsers that are also build on the Gecko engine by Mozilla. (Subtle differences set aside) Not that they amount to large numbers of visitors (<1%), depending on your site of course.

There’s also a good chance that when you develop the site for IE 6 and Firefox, it may also work in most cases in the other alternative browsers. But you’ll have to check just to make sure!

Currently, work is being done on Firefox 2 (see the roadmap), but from a developers viewpoint no shocking things will be added or removed. My best guess: If it works in FF 1.5 it’ll probably work in FF 2.0.

Safari ~2%

Logo SafariThere’s probably no need to explain that this browser is Mac OS X only. Most sites will only see a small percentage of visitors with Safari, but that may be totally different if your content caters to the Mac people. Let’s say, free iTunes gift certificates anyone? Although that may draw a lot of iPod/Win users as well. 🙂
Overall stats report around a 2% marketshare for Safari. Check your own stats.

As a plus this browser supports web-standards well. So if you develop according to the W3C standards it should work on most current browsers, Firefox & Safari alike. Again, roll in the specific differences.
On the downside Safari is tied to OS X as IE to Windows. Upgrading to the latest Safari means upgrading OS X. And taking a look at my stats there are quite a few people running an older version. (you have to pay to upgrade…)

As a side-effect developing for Safari may (or may not) help Konqueror (Linux), as they share the same codebase. Although they appear to have gone their separate ways. I have no Konqueror therefore I cannot vouch for that.

Opera ~1%

Logo OperaThe marketshare of Opera has been hovering around the 1% mark for quite some time. What can I say…
Recent versions of Opera have seen some big improvements in the user-interface and standards compliance. Furthermore, last year the browser became a free download. So it has all the ingredients to grow its marketshare, but time will tell.

Whether you want to cater for Opera is up to you. Although it won’t hurt to check your site in Opera and fix the main bugs. That shouldn’t be too hard when you develop your site with standards compliance in mind.

Others

Are there other browsers? Yes there are the likes of OmniWeb, iCab (probably the last supported browser on Mac Classic), Maxthon (basically a shell replacement for IE), …
But the marketshare of these are so low, you may think twice to develop for those.

The same holds true for mobile browsers. Occasionally you’ll find someone passing by, but even though everyone is carrying a PDA/smartphone/cellphone around these days I can’t find significant numbers back in my stats (and those of others). So it’s probably early days to develop specifically for mobile. Unless of course you’re in the mobile business.

What about search engines?

To wrap up an all too long story there’s one more category of visitors you’ll definitely want to cater for. The search engines, or their bots that crawl your site!

If you check your serverlogs or do some server-side useragent-sniffing, you’ll probably find that there’s a whole lot more traffic going on than you might think. That bot-traffic may even surpass your ‘regular’ traffic. I see that Google and Yahoo! are the ones that come by on a daily basis. But there’s a whole bunch of known and unknown bots passing by. Either with good or bad intentions.

To cut things short: If you care to be found by search engines you may want to consider making your site more accessible. Helping the impaired also helps search engines index your site. As bots don’t care for JavaScripts, Flash, CSS, frames, etc…

Conclusion

Check your site statistics to find out whether you’re catering for the right public. Even though web standards have come a long way, there are still differences between browsers. So if everything runs smooth in IE 6 but the 15% of Firefox visitors cannot get passed that anoying script-error, you’re cutting yourself in the finger. I’ve seen it happen before. 🙂

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