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Should we be designing for legacy browsers?

Web designers have been on the frontlines of the browser-war battlefields for some time now, dodging the shells of legacy browsers exploding all over carefully-crafted pages. Even the design of a simple page would require the designer to have an arsenal of hacks and tricks to ensure cross-browser compatibility.

But is it time for the designers and developers to stop fighting the good fight and move the industry forward by refusing to design for legacy browsers?

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Certainly with the advent of Internet Explorer (IE) 7, some great strides were taken towards a more compatible infrastructure in terms of how designs are rendered in different browsers. IE8 is now up there with Firefox, Safari and Opera (and to some extent Chrome) in applying web standards to the display of HTML and CSS.

This is all well and good, but there’s still a propensity to keep an eye on the market share of IE and try and design accordingly. IE8 is gaining ground, certainly, but there are still a few skirmishes out there and a good designer still needs to at least think a few versions back when it comes to designing for IE.

So, is it not time that we as designers and developers take on the responsibility of moving the industry forward by building sites that ignore the legacy browsers, and focus on the more modern versions?

This could sound like a bit of laziness dressed up as social conscience, but it isn’t that at all. With a web designer, it has always been a matter of pride that a design is compatible with almost any browser in the world. Anybody with access to a computer and a modem, no matter what system they’re using, should be able to get the same amount of value out of a website as the person with the most up-to-date systems. It is hard work, but it is useful and necessary work.

But, on the other hand…

The problem, however, with continually referring back to previous browsers is that it leads to stagnation. CSS3 techniques, for example, have been around for quite some time, and are still not regarded as something that can be widely-used.

It doesn’t make sense for such a fast-moving industry to be mired in past systems. Perhaps it’s time for the actual pages that get displayed on the Internet to be the catalyst for change. It’s not difficult to download and install a new browser version, or in fact to switch to another browser. With the browser-detection techniques developed out of necessity during the browser wars, we should be showing notices, providing links, and educating the average web user about the options available.

The global design theory also doesn’t really stand up. It’s like looking for the universal equation — there are just too many factors to take into account. At last count there are more than 30 different types of browsers being used on the Internet. It’s not possible to design for all of these.

Five years ago we were having this discussion about IE5.5. Does anybody today actually still try and design for 5.5? What then, is the difference between not designing for 5.5 and killing yourself to make sure that IE6 displays your pages correctly? Or IE7? Or Safari 1.0? Or Netscape 2?

There is also an argument that major corporations have written internal systems that only operate on specific types of browsers and cannot justify the expense of upgrading their programming so that their workforce can access Facebook for example. This, too, doesn’t stand up really. Simply provide an alternative browser to use. There is no reason that somebody cannot use IE6 to access that crazy internal accounting system and Firefox 3.5 to browse the web.

It’s a bold move, however, to become so forward-focussed, especially when developing for clients who will expect to have as much coverage as possible. This could be solved with a little education and communication. It should be made clear to a new client what the options are, and how you as a company approach this issue. Should the client request that their website be compatible with legacy browsers, then this can be taken into account when drawing up the project quotes and specifications.

It is time for designers and developers to take a more active role in taking the industry forward by educating their audience about browser-compatibility and the options available.

This can only be beneficial to the global user population who will have better internet experiences. For the clients who will have a lower bill at the end of the day. And for the designer in the trenches who can finally say that the war is over.

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