What web browser are you using right now? Google Chrome? Mozilla Firefox? Microsoft Edge? When you navigated to this web page, your browser retrieved the code for the page. It then interpreted the directions in that code and drew up this page for you to read. Thanks, browser!
Browsers Are Important...
We research trends and collect analytics about browser usage because it’s important that the websites we build work properly in the browsers our visitors are using. Our QA web design team uses this information to test our sites and make sure any browser-specific problems get worked out before a project goes public.
…Except When They're Not Important at All
But what happens when we get visitors who are using browsers that aren't popular enough to be worth testing—browsers that are old or obscure? And what happens as our websites age and new browsers and versions of browsers become the norm? We can’t test for things that don’t exist yet, but with the right perspective we can mitigate these problems. That largely involves looking beyond individual browsers.
It was once common in web development to detect what browser a visitor was using or implement convoluted code hacks to get around the limitations and quirks of specific browsers. For example, if we knew a certain browser didn’t support a certain feature, we’d want to find out if a visitor was using that browser so we’d know if that feature wasn’t available to them. However, it’s now prevailing wisdom that this is the wrong approach. Whenever possible, it helps to instead focus on the actual problem at hand: determining whether a user's browser, whatever it may be, has a given feature. This strategy of feature detection instead of browser detection means our code won’t be caught off guard by browsers we haven’t considered or those that don’t exist yet.
Looking Out for the Old
So what do we do when our site gets a visit from a browser that doesn’t have the features we need? A web experience doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Even if it isn’t in our best interest to fully support browsers that are no longer prevalent among our users, we can choose to make efforts not to leave them in the dark. The idea of “graceful degradation” means that even if parts of the website’s experience are broken for users, ideally they should still have the ability to complete critical tasks. Taking this a step further is the strategy of “progressive enhancement,” which treats that bare minimum of functionality for everyone as the priority and anything beyond that as icing on the cake—special treats for browsers that are capable of more sophisticated experiences.
Looking Forward to the New
Even if we tested every browser that has ever existed, after a site launches technology will continue to march on and browsers will update. How can we know that our sites will still work in browsers that don't exist yet? While we can’t always know for sure, but there are reasons we can feel confident that a well-built website can live a long life if it needs to.
Did you know the very first website is still online? Over at http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html you can see it for yourself, frozen in time as it existed in the early 1990s. In the early days of the web, the browsers used to view that page may not have even supported colors or images—a long way from the browsers of today (you can view the first website through a simulated line-mode browser if you want that authentic experience). However, your modern browser can still access that page just fine. It may not look the same to you as it had when the earliest users saw it, but everything works as intended. Changes by standards organizations or browser vendors that might break older websites are not taken lightly. While some code gets designated obsolete and eventually loses support from browsers, we shouldn't expect the basic building blocks of the web to go anywhere in the foreseeable future. We can expect websites with solid foundations to hold up well.
In the short term, what the future brings for our favorite browsers isn’t usually a big secret, either. Keeping on top of industry news will typically clue us in on major developments on the way that might affect existing sites. While not typically necessary, it's often possible to test upcoming browser changes before they’re ready for prime time (for example, Mozilla and Google respectively make their latest test versions of Firefox and Chrome available to the public).
Changes to browsers are less likely to cause problems for websites than a lot of other factors, like reliance on third-party services that might go out of business, or tools that might become obsolete, or security holes that might not be discovered yet. Being conscientious during the build process and performing necessary maintenance over the life of a site are more useful for combating those problems. In fact, new versions of browsers can bring improved experiences to existing sites as they evolve to be safer and perform better.
Browsers Are Our Friends (Even If We Don't Always Get Along)
Sometimes browsers make web development difficult. There is something particularly frustrating about getting something working in one browser only to discover it doesn't work quite right in another. But in a lot of ways it challenges us to build better websites, and we can thank all those browsers for challenging each other to provide better features, stick to standards and help evolve the web. So take a moment to appreciate your browser today!