Continuum

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You’re reading an article on Smashing Magazine or A List Apart or some other publication. The article is about a specific feature of CSS, or maybe JavaScript, or perhaps it’s exploring some of the newer additions to HTML. The article is good. It explains how to use this particular feature in your work. Then you read the comments. The first comment is inevitably from someone bemoaning the fact that they can’t use this feature because it isn’t supported in every browser. Specifically, it isn’t supported in some older version of Internet Explorer that they have to support. Therefore the entire article is rendered null and void.

That attitude infuriates and depresses me. It seems to me that it demonstrates a fundamental mismatch between how that person views the job of web development and the way the web actually works.

It is entirely possible—nay, desirable—to use features long before they are supported in every browser. That’s how we move the web forward. If we waited until there was universal support for a feature before we used it, we’d still be using CSS 1.0 and HTML 2.0.

If you use a CSS feature that isn’t supported in a particular browser—like, say, an older version of Internet Explorer—that browser will simply ignore that CSS rule. So you don’t get that rounded corner, or text shadow, or whatever it was. Browsers have the same error-handling mechanism for HTML: if they see something they don’t understand, they just ignore it. The browser will not throw an error. The browser will not stop rendering the page. Browsers are very liberal in what they accept.

It’s a bit trickier with JavaScript: browsers will throw an error; browsers will stop processing the script. That’s why it’s important to use feature detection. That’s also why you definitely don’t want to rely on JavaScript for rendering your content—it’s the most fragile layer of the front-end stack. Note, I’m not saying don’t use JavaScript; I’m saying don’t rely on JavaScript. Otherwise you’ve got yourself a SPOF.

Anyway, my point is—and I can’t believe I still have to repeat this after all these years—websites do not need to look exactly the same in every browser.

“But my client!”, cries the Smashing Magazine commenter, “But my boss!”

If your client or boss expects that a website will look and behave the same in every browser on every device, then where did they get those expectations from? And rather than spending your time trying to meet those impossible expectations, I think your time would be better spent explaining why those expectations don’t match the reality of the web.

It’s like Mike Monteiro says about clients: if they just don’t get something about your design, that’s not their fault; it’s yours. Explaining your design work is part of your design work. It’s the same with web development. It’s our job to explain how the web works …and how the unevenly-distributed nature of browser capabilities is not a bug, it’s a feature.

That was true fourteen years ago when John Allsopp wrote A Dao Of Web Design, and it’s still true today. Back then, designers and developers were comparing the web to print and finding it wanting. These days, designers and developers are comparing the web to native and finding it wanting. In both cases, I feel like they’re missing the fundamental point of the web: you can provide universal access to content and tasks without providing exactly the same experience for every single browser or device. That’s not a failing of the web—that’s its killer app.

Paul Kinlan published a post called This Is the Web Platform where he tabulates the current state of browser support for various features. “Pretty damning” he says:

the feature support that is ubiquitous across the web is actually pretty small especially if you are supporting IE8.

That’s true …from a certain point of view. But it depends on your definition of “support”. If your definition of “support” is “must look and work identically to the latest version of Chrome”, then yes, you’re going to have a smaller set of features you can use (you’re also going to live a miserable existence). But if your definition of “support” is “must be able to access the content and accomplish the task”, then as long as you’re using progressive enhancement, you can use all the features you want and support Internet Explorer 8, 7, 6, 5 …you can support every browser capable of connecting to the internet.

Like Brad said:

There is a difference between support and optimization.

I think part of the problem may be with the language we use. We talk about “the browser” when we should be talking about the browsers. I’m guilty of this. I’ll use phrases like “designing in the browser” or talk about “what we can do in the browser”, when really I should be talking about designing in the browsers and what we can do in the browsers.

It’s a subtle Lakoffian thing, but when we talk about “the browser” as if it were a single entity we might be unconsiously reinforcing the expectation that there is one Platonic ideal of browser rendering and that’s what we’re designing for.

There’s another phrase that bothers me, and it’s the phrase that Paul used in the title of his article: “the web platform”. This is something I talked about back in November in my presentation The Power of Simplicity:

But this idea of the web as a platform, I get why from a marketing perspective, we’d want to use that phrase, because it puts the web on equal footing with genuine platforms.

I would say Flash is a platform, and native: iOS and Android and these things. They are platforms, in that it’s all one bundle. And the web isn’t like that.

What I mean is, if you use the Flash platform, then anyone with the Flash plug-in can get your content. It’s on or off. It’s one or zero; it’s binary. Either they have the platform or they don’t. Either they get all your content, or none of your content.

And it’s similar with native apps. If you’ve got the right phone, you can get my app. All of my app. You don’t get bits of my app, you get all my app. Or you get none of it because you don’t have that particular phone that I’m supporting.

And the web is not like that. The web is not binary, one or zero, on or off. It’s not a platform where you get one hundred per cent or zero per cent. It’s this continuum.

The web is not a platform. It’s a continuum.

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