I'd like to take a minute or 14 to harken back to the good ol' days of the Internet. You know, the days when a visit to the World Wide Web would not produce lifelike video games, revealing images of your next-door neighbor or a directory of Bad Scrabble Hands.
Back in 1994, a little before and a little after as well, the Web was just text, simple images, a few colors and that's about it. You had no business being on the Internet unless you were there to gather information. There were forums and chat groups, but they lacked the visual capabilities they possess now. For a real kick, you can view today's Web sites through old browsers at Deja Vu. This site has emulators that can show URLs through the earliest versions of Internet Explorer and Netscape. You will more than likely notice that no site looks right through these decrepit browsers.
With today's technology, and the variety of browsers that allow access to the Web, you would be hard-pressed to be anything but bored when surfing the Net. This comes as an advantage to users but oftentimes becomes a disadvantage for Web site developers. It's great to be able to develop intricate, database-driven sites, full of Flash, font style types, graphics, etc. But what happens when not every browser supports the wonderful site you just built?
You can do what I do and just give up, go home and watch grainy public television. Or you could attempt to optimize your Web sites for most of the mainstream browsers.
This too, is not as simple as it looks. There seems to be just as many browsers as there are Web sites. In fact, there's a whole site devoted to the numerous types of browsers called the Browser Archive. This is quite possibly the first Web site — or second, after the Bad Scrabble Hands — that I wish I hadn't found. How on earth, or anywhere in this galaxy, for that matter, could anyone optimize a site for this many browsers, with multiple versions? They've even made a browser for new cell phones!
The best way to work through this is to target most of your Web site development toward versions of Internet Explorer 5 and above on a machine running Windows. Statistics show that Internet Explorer is the primary browser and Windows is the primary platform. Older computers do use versions of IE before 5, but almost all of these are upgradeable.
Netscape is also used on Windows, and when it comes to a Mac, there are operating system issues as well. Macworld recently published an article entitled OSX Battle of the Browsers. Now there's something you won't see on public television. We do most of our Web site development on a Mac, in OSX, and we see fewer differences in designing for the newer browsers. It's still the older ones that most designers need to scrutinize.
There are plenty of ways to determine what features are industry standard and what will work in most browsers. AnyBrowser.com dubs itself as Your Source for Browser Compatibility Verification. The site offers many resources to check a particular Web site's functionality across the browser board. The SiteViewer even allows you to view a URL in a variety of other ways.
Webmonkey supplies another valuable tool for developers by displaying a chart that shows what is and is not supported by browsers that are used most often. The chart shown from this link displays Windows browsers, but there are also links for Mac, Unix/Linux and other operating systems.
Developing a sharp-looking place on the Internet can become difficult if you are using an antiquated browser to test the site. At the same time, overloading your site with special features that are specific to a single browser could also run you into problems. Stick with as many standards as possible, and that should keep your pages looking relatively similar on most computer screens. Stay away from strange browser types, bad Scrabble hands and lousy television reception, and you should at least survive for a year or two.