In the first quarter of 2011 both Microsoft and Mozilla released major upgrades of their Web browsers just weeks apart. This wasn't just a coincidence, there's a major war for browser market share going on which is presenting both opportunities and danger to online advertisers. In the end, we will wind up with much more robust Web browsers, which will definitely benefit advertisers, but getting there will present some challenges. If this sounds familiar, it should. In the early days of the Internet, browser capability was driven by competition between Microsoft and Netscape. Eventually Microsoft won.
By the middle of the last decade Microsoft held approximately 95% of the Web browser market. Testing Websites was relatively easy then. All you needed to do was test a few version of Internet Explorer with a few versions of the Microsoft operating system and you had the browser matrix reasonably covered. These days, it's nowhere near that simple.
Today Mozilla's Firefox is become a major player, Apple's Safari is holding its own and Google's Chrome is off to an astonishing start. Now, any company wanting its Website to look good and perform well for all its online customers needs to test the site with four different Web browsers running under several different operating system. This is a big matrix to have to test, and it doesn't even count mobile devices like the iPad and Android.
However complicated the browser matrix was in 2010, this year is going to be a lot worse. Several companies with deep pockets are engaged in a war for browser market share, so we can expect to see a year of intense competition.
Mozilla has announced a new development schedule that will have them turning out a new browser every few months. They just released Firefox 4.0, and have stated they are planning to release versions 5.0, 6.0 and 7.0 by the end of the year. Under the new schedule at any given time there will be four different versions of Firefox available for download from Mozilla; one version will be a daily build of the next planned release, another will be an experimental version, another will be a beta version reasonably close to what will be released as the next official version, and the last version will be the current version itself.
The first two versions of Firefox, the daily build and the experimental, can be ignored. The second two, the beta and the official release, should be tracked on a weekly basis, and for good reason. The previous development cycle for Web browsers was based on years. If a Website had problems with a new browser that took two weeks to fix, it didn't matter because it was a few weeks for every year or two. The new development cycle is measured in months, so the two weeks of problems happen two to four times a year now, and this is just not acceptable.
Internet Explorer also needs to be tracked regularly. IE 9 was a major rewrite of the Internet Explorer, and can only be run on a Windows 7 computer. Among its other features, IE 9 can use the 3D processing engines on computer video cards to animate Website graphics. If history is any teacher, it will take Microsoft a while to perfect the technology, but it could be spectacular when they make it work reliably. Meanwhile, Microsoft is pushing ahead with even more features planed for future releases. Microsoft was talking about Internet Explorer 10 even as IE 9 was being released and demos of IE 10 are already present on the Microsoft site.
Numbers vary, but Google's Chrome Web browser is estimated to have grabbed about 10% of the market, a remarkable accomplishment considering how recently it was introduced. Anyone who's tried it will understand, though. Chrome is incredibly faster than any other Web browser. It's a little difficult to use since it uses a minimalist interface approach, and it puts the tabs on the top, but it's so fast it's worth the effort to adjust to it.
Having four browsers to test may seem daunting, but we are facing an easier time than in the early days of the Internet. On the positive side, there are far fewer screen draw differences between browsers than there were in the early days of the Internet when Internet Explorer slugged it out with Netscape. Today all four of the major top browsers do display reasonably similar versions of Website content. There are still issues that require adequate testing, but on the most part we're not going to see the severe screen draw issues we saw in the Internet's early years.
Another thing in our favor is that this time there are a lot more tools to make Website testing easy than there were ten years ago. A good example of a tool to help manage multiple-browser testing is Utilu (available free at www.utilu.com). Utilu is capable of installing nearly all major versions of Internet Explorer or Firefox in a way that allows you to use all of them at the same time. This is a good trick, since Internet Explorer is programed to install over itself rather than allow multiple versions to exist on a single computer, and Firefox has a feature that automatically updates the installed version of Firefox.
Cool as Utilu is, the most important tool you can have is a process in place for managing browser compatibility issues. Any business with a commercial Website needs to regularly evaluate the appearance and performance of their Website with newly released browsers. That process should be something like this:
1. Designate someone to monitor the pending releases of new version of all browsers your company Website will support.
2. The designated will prepare a report each week showing the development schedule for all covered browsers.
3. When a new browser version is within a few weeks of being released, the designated person will download the beta version and execute a series of tests to see if any problems.
4. The designated test person will notify the engineering team about browser based quality assurance issues in time for the site to be compatible with the new browser before the new browser is released.
This may sound like a lot of work to go through, but chances are it's a lot cheaper than the cost of lost business that Website problems can cause. In the long term, the payoff will be Websites capable of far more sophisticated graphics than dreamed of today. . The price will be a lot of hard work today, but it will be worth it.
Glen Emerson Morris was a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law.
He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.