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Browsers, what to test in


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During some recent accessibility training I was asked what browsers should be tested in and while explaining I discovered that many people do not know how browsers tie together, what ones are for what Operating Systems and what are even common. So here is a explanation of the big 4 and what to watch for in the future.

  • Firefox - Firefox is the second growing browser, on many sites I run it has in fact taken over the lead spot in statistics. Basically Firefox runs the same on Linux and Mac as it does on windows, so if the site works in windows it will on the others as well, it is the most used browser in Mac and Linux. It is standards compliant.
    At one time Netscape was the lead browser, it's code name was Mozilla. Later Mozilla broke away and became it's own project and the Mozilla suite was the basis of Netscape 6. Mozilla began powering Netscape and Mozilla became it's own browser as well. Then they decided that rather than have a bloated app with email, chat and what all else in, they would break each out into it's own module. This gave birth to Firefox Browser, Thunderbird email client and Sunbird Calendar as a few examples. With the final release of Firefox, Mozilla was retired. However Mozilla lives on due to the work of some fans and with Mozilla's support they are continuing to improve it and it is called Seamonkey now.
    Gecko is the rendering engine. If you test in Firefox, you can be sure it will work just as well in any gecko client, so Netscape (now retired), Mozilla/Seamonkey and Camino (Mac only).
  • Opera - Opera has or had a cult following as it was the fastest browser on the market at one time, however i was privately funded and needed to be purchased. It has been free now for a few years still ignored, i will do a separate article on why you should check out Opera. But it has the easiest internal style switching available, first to incorporate a zoom mechanism, first to include spatial navigation, first to include voice command, first to include a mobile view for testing, first to offer a speed dial screen in new tabs... it has been unduly ignored. Opera is standards compliant but does show some things slightly different than other browsers. Opera was also the first browser to pass Acid 3.
    Opera is not just a interesting alternative browser, it is the only commercial browser available for mobile use. There is a Firefox version being developed for mobile user agents but Opera has been in use for years along with a lesser known mobile only browser. By testing in Opera with Opera's specialized tools will help insure it is working well for users, opera is also used on many cell phones as well as the Wii when surfing, so odds are good the web site will work better in those tools as well.
  • Safari - Safari has been around for years and is the Mac in house browser. It is well used in the community but still falls behind Firefox in statistics of Mac users. Safari is standards compliant.
    There is now a version of Safari for Windows. Windows users can now install Safari 3 beta on a windows machine and test. There are some oddities between Safari Mac and Safari Windows, more to do with the presentation of Text. But for the most art if it works in one it will work in the other. The presentation may differ slightly, but the functionality is close enough to be sure the site can be used on Mac.
  • IE - Well what is to be said here, we all pretty well realize the quirks of IE. IE has never been standards friendly. The IE team has spent years trying to create their own standards even thought Microsoft is part of the W3C. IE 6 does not support Standards, IE 7 supports standards somewhat, IE 8 is supposed to support Standards when released. IE7 only works on XP SP2, SP3 and Vista. IE8 will I believe only work on Vista and later. IE6 will work on XP SP1 and anything before. As long as people are unwilling to upgrade, IE6 will be around like a zombie, dead but still attacking & eating our web sites. IE5.5 and below do not even register on most statistics or ring in at less than 1%. They are dead, we have to draw a line somewhere. IE support for Mac ended with IE5.2 and IE no longer supports Mac and never supported Linux.
    So IE does it's own thing. What do we do about it? Well traditionally hacks, but hacks are using a browser weakness to do something, if the weakness is then corrected as with IE7, many sites designed with hacks for IE6 broke. So stay away from hacks. Conditional Comments are the way to go. They were created by Microsoft and allow you to pick and choose versions. They are a form of CData comments and If loops. If IE6 do this, if IE7 do that. These are ignored by all other browsers. So it is a form of IE specific sniffing. You can for instance either load different style sheets or just specific commands to overwrite styles in a style sheet. IF IE6, use this H! style rather than the default style... sort of thing.
    IE8 is a whole new ball game. IE8 was to launch a poorly thought out plan that was flamed in designer communities. This idea has been named Version Targeting. The idea is simple, a meta tag in the header of every page will tell IE what version of the browser the web site is meant for. IE8 can then choose from multiple rendering engines to show the site as it should be. So you may now be lazy and never update your site, just add the meta and tell it to render as IE6. I am sure laziness will overcome, but it is good for older sites that may have archived material, you need not rewrite everything, just say that that page was written for IE5 years ago and it should render as IE5, that is good, but using it as an excuse not to update a active site is laziness. Another problem is the size, IE8 will have to include multiple rendering engines to render old pages as old browsers... so each version of IE will be more bloated as it's rendering engine is included with all the others. It was poorly thought out because the default was to be IE6, why should IE8 default to IE6? Why should those of us not wishing to use it have to use it to say we do not wish to use it (by telling it to act like what it is IE8). They finally saw the light and have announced that IE8 will default to IE8 standards mode, and you must add the meta tag for anything else. IE8 will still not support XHTML, so there will still be no reason to use it.
  • JAWS - JAWS is the most common screen reader and hails from Freedom Scientific. It is expensive so you won't be buying one, but the demo version runs for the first 30 minutes after booting your machine and it is not just a browser (actually piggy backs on the browser), it will read anything you do on your operating system as well. Now you can listen to your site, test it in a manner as well. Just remember that yu will not use it as a sighted person the same manner a blind person will. It has a visual pointer that you can move with the mouse and a virtual pointer. It can get problematic if you try to test as a blind user while using the mouse to point at things. So if you are going to use it, use it right. Unplug the mouse and turn off the monitor if you can, close your eyes or sue a blindfold if you can not. Then test your site. It will help you find structural problems, missing alt attributes and even misspellings. Then if you can, get a hold of a Assistive Technologies organization and have them test the site out using real users with disabilities.
  • Google Chrome - Not yet a contender, but it may become one, especially in mobile units. I personally like this light and simple app and do use t often, but not as my primary browser.
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