Second-class web citizens

Back in March 2001, when Apple shipped the first official release of Mac OS X, the bundled web browser was the then cutting edge Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.1 with its highly standards compliant and fault tolerant Tasman rendering engine.

Back in March 2001, when Apple shipped the first official release of Mac OS X, the bundled web browser was the then cutting edge Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.1 with its highly standards compliant and fault tolerant Tasman rendering engine.

The great thing about it was that it had, and in some cases still has (for example, PNG support), features that didn't exist in the Windows version. While there were some issues with websites that used specific Windows features (such as ActiveX) and the fact that the rendering speed of Internet Explorer wasn't the quickest, in general Mac users could feel happy in the knowledge that their browsing experience was on par with the best.

Fast forward to the present, though, where Microsoft has effectively exited the standalone browser market by freezing further development of Internet Explorer, and Apple has responded by releasing the Konqueror-based Safari. The question has to be asked: is the browsing experience on the Mac platform still first class?

Of course, one of the biggest changes in the last three years has been the rapid expansion of available Mac OS X browsers. Thanks to the open source Mozilla project, not only is there an official release of Netscape and Mozilla for the platform, but numerous other browsers based on the Mozilla technology including Firefox (aka Firebird, Phoenix) and Camino. In the commercial realm, there are the alternatives of iCab, Opera and OmniWeb.

Generally speaking, 95% of the websites I access each day, from news sites to vendors sites to Cookie Time's own internal site, are rendered and function correctly with Safari 1.2. However, it is the last 5% that cause all of the trouble and require a quick trip back to Internet Explorer or one of the alternatives.

If this wasn't bad enough, sometimes if all else fails, I am forced to virtually boot up Windows 98 running under Virtual PC to get access to a website. Usually, only usability reasons force this drastic course of action, but every so often web masters helpfully put up a customer service notice saying in essence: "Attention! Our web developers have informed us that MS Windows Explorer is the only web browser on the planet, so go away and don't come back until you meet our needs."

Part of the problem is with MSIE 6's great ability to render error-ridden web pages properly instead of enforcing the standards strictly. If Microsoft wasn't a monopoly then this wouldn't be so much of a problem, but because it is, this has meant that browser developers have been forced to choose between using the standards and implementing based on the behaviour of MSIE. Given that MSIE is closed source, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, these developers will never get the behaviour quite right to provide a seamless browsing experience.

Conspiracy theorists would argue that this misfeature is part of an evil Microsoft plot to dictate the standards on the internet and make it Windows-only, but the reality is that web masters should have the finger of blame pointed at them for not following the standards or even testing their sites for other browsers. The lack of testing is understandable when you are talking about small businesses or personal sites with limited resources, but most of the big offenders are governmental or commercial sites.

While all Mac users will have at least one site that constantly frustrates them, my personal favourite is the online banking offered by Bank Direct that I use on a near daily basis. In Safari, it alternates between showing just the date of your transactions and showing nothing at all. In Internet Explorer the same site works perfectly. Curious as to the reason why, I grabbed a copy of the source for the page and ran it through a couple of validators. On this simple page containing a list of 25 odd transactions, the validator found over 100 syntax errors ranging from missing quotation marks to the use of long depreciated MS only tags. Fortunately, Internet Explorer can handle this mess and provide me with a working solution, but why should it have to when it wouldn't take a lot of time to correct these errors in the first place?

In the long term, things will get better as more and more users go to alternative browsers that force web masters to develop with the standards in mind. For the moment though, non-MSIE users will have to put up with a second class browsing experience.

White is MIS manager at Cookie Time in Christchurch. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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