Don't leave alternative browsers all at sea

As Opera demonstrates, there are sea changes underway in the browser market. Ignoring these will be costly for everyone

Although Opera boss' Jon von Tetzchner has failed in his attempt to swim the Atlantic, he remains buoyed up by the million-plus downloads of version eight of his browser. Firefox is currently on the brink of 50 million downloads, and when you factor in Safari on the Mac, Internet Explorer's share of the market is down to a mere 90 percent.

Ten percent market share doesn't sound like much, but it's significant. Browser-delivered services are evolving faster and in more interesting directions than any other aspect of client technology. Google's ever-increasing suite of products, and applications such as Flickr, demonstrate daily that you can do things in a browser that are more than a match for thin or fat client approaches.

Innovative use of existing standards, such as Ajax' use of JavaScript to hide server delays from the user, means that browsers are pointing the way to true open, platform-independent computing. Making these work with all the browsers keeps everyone honest, and encourages further development.

That message isn't always getting through. Far too often, developers of Web services can't be bothered to check for compatibility with non-IE browsers or, worse, pick some off-the-shelf solutions that exclude the alternatives.

People who say they'll only work with IE are shooting themselves in the foot — and the rest of us are in danger of being hit by the ricochets. Active competition is the only way to make Microsoft do any work: after years of neglect, IE's back in the labs being fitted out with such daring innovations as proper cascading style sheet and PNG support. There may even be tabbed browsing. And what brings this on? "Responding to users," says Microsoft. "Watching us leave," say the users.

For companies committing commerce over the Web, screening out non-IE users is doubly silly: the people who have made the move to the Macintosh or switched to Firefox are the legendary early adopters, the people who drive consumer take-up of new technology. They're smart, solvent and spread the word: do you really want them driven to your competition? And in any case, now Microsoft has woken up and recalled the IE programming team from the retirement home, there'll be a whole load of new testing to be done when the new version comes out later this year. Might as well pick some Web standards and stick to them.

Soggy Icelanders notwithstanding, browser diversity is extraordinarily important for the future health of the industry. Don't let it die off through laziness.

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