This document is a supplement to
Editing for Clear Communication
Copyright 1996-1999,
Thom Lieb

No portion may be reused without the author's permission.

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Further Reading:
Thom Lieb,
"Access Code,"
Journal of Electronic Publishing, June 1998

To learn more about
this college editing textbook or to order
an educational review
copy, please visit
McGraw Hill.

Editing for the Web

Browser Battles

Isn't it ironic: Hypertext Markup Language was created so that computer users around the world could view the same information in the same format, no matter what kind of machine they use. The reality hasn't quite worked out that way: Look at the same Web page on three different computers in the same building and the page will look quite different.

A large part of the problem is that different people use different Web browsing software. For a while, this was particularly bad: New browsers seemed to pop onto the market overnight, and the private online companies each developed proprietary browsers of their own. And until prices of 28 and 56kbps modems dropped, many Web surfers used text-only browsers such as Lynx.

Netscape picked up a large share of early adopters by making its Navigator and Communicator browser software available for free downloading. (Sure, you can buy a CD-ROM copy at Computers R Us — but do you know anyone who has?) In 1995, as many as 80 percent of Web surfers were using Netscape browsers.

But mega-corporation Microsoft didn't like that, so it begain bundling its browswer, Internet Explorer, with Windows 95/98 and several online services. In doing so, Microsoft picked up nearly half of Web surfers. As of late 1998, Internet Explorer actually held a slight lead over Netscape Navigator, with about 44 percent of surfers using the former and 41 percent using the latter. (Microsoft's aggressive push landed it in federal court, too, in an antitrust investigation.)

Now here's the rub for Web site builders: There is no guarantee that a page will look the same on Internet Explorer as on Navigator. And as browsers are being updated about every six months, there is no guarantee that a page will look the same from one version to the next of the same browser, or that special features will work on all versions.

To complicate matters, millions of Web surfers use America Online's unique browser. Other use lesser-known browsers such as the Opera browser from Europe. And about three-quarter of a million American Web surfers do their browsing on their televisions with WebTV.

That leaves Web producers in a bind. On one hand, they want to offer the latest and greatest features on their pages. On the other, they want to make sure that most, if not all, of their visitors will actually see those features. To accomplish those objectives, you should follow these two basic rules:

1) View your page on as many different browsers and computers as possible at as many different resolutions as possible. Chances are you'll be disgusted and disappointed at seeing how ugly your well-crafted pages appear in some settings. But you should be able to draw lessons from the experience for the design of your site.

2) Offer your readers a choice of pages. For example, the 4.0 versions of Navigator and Internet offered support for Cascading Style Sheets, which allow for cleaner page design as well as easier access for viewers with visual disabilities. But earlier versions of the browsers, which have been marketed as late as 1997, do not support CSS. So savvy site builders use javascript code to sniff out what browser and version a surfer is using, then deliver an appropriate page.

Perhaps someday Web pages will look the same on every computer and TV screen in the universe. Until that unlikely day, if you want to draw a crowd to your site, take the time to make sure your site looks good to everyone who stops by.

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