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Support standards, not multiple browsers

The argument should not be about supporting IE plus minority browsers, or just IE; it should be about supporting Web standards or ignoring them

There is a mindset that believes that building support for the Firefox browser in company Web sites means extra development work, and running several versions of the Web site.

In fact organisations, such as the Department of Work and Pensions, that want to make their sites compatible with as many browsers as possible need do only one thing: build them according to formal Web standards. That support for Firefox or Opera — or any other minority browser — should mean extra work is flawed thinking. In the long term, writing to the standards will save work, as those who build to what they see as the de facto 'standards' of Internet Explorer will find that they end up having to support different versions of IE in very different ways. Given Microsoft's stated intentions about IE, this remains a very real possibility.

Too many people have become too conditioned to the notion that IE sets the standards. In fact, there is no need for de facto Web standards as everything we need — including accessibility and cross-browser compatibility — is provided by the W3C . And the terms of the argument should not be about which browser organisations support, but whether they will build their sites according to Web standards or not.

There is a particularly unpleasant irony in the case of the DWP's Web site, as pointed out in one Talkback to our story, in which a systems administrator noted: "Personally I just vote with my feet, and go elsewhere. But then I don't need those sites. There are those that do. Like my son who cannot buy a Windows licence because he doesn't have a job, and he can't access the Job Centre Web site from his Linux/Firefox box... of course he can get round it by using some other computer, but why should he?"

Why indeed?

The bigger issue is that a site that does not work with minority browsers is a site that is almost certainly not written to standards, and a site not written to standards is not only likely to have accessibility issues, but is also likely to fall foul of the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), which does impose obligations for organisations who sell products and services online.

Stinging criticism was directed at Odeon Cinemas last year for closing an accessible version of its particularly inaccessible site. While the company laudably claims to provide access "whatever the nature of disability" to all its premises where possible, it clearly still does not count its Web site in that. The text version, to which it directs Firefox users along with disabled users, is a dingy basement compared to the experience afforded able-bodied IE users. It simply doesn't make sense to continue to exhibit such an outmoded mindset any more.