A Rule of Thumb in Browser Compatibility

This article alleges that Mozilla Firefox is on its way to niche browser status, and it explains the rapid pace of browser development that will lead to that cul-de-sac:

Something extraordinary happened this month. Google released version 10 of its Chrome browser. Microsoft released Internet Explorer 9. And now, after an epic development cycle that included 12 betas, Mozilla has finally said “Ship it” for Firefox 4.

Three major releases from the three leading browser developers in the same month? That’s unheard of. It took more than 15 years for Internet Explorer to work its way through nine versions. Firefox, which used to be the agile upstart, has taken nearly two years to progress from version 3.5 and nearly three years from version 3.0. It took Google only a bit more than two years to ship Chrome 9 last month, and it was replaced by version 10 just a little over four weeks later.

With that rapid of a release of browsers, it might look as though the compatibility picture is spinning out of control for we poor Web application testers. But that’s not really so.

As it stands, Firefox and Chrome are already sort-of niche browsers. People who use either of them have to go out of their way to get them instead of just using what comes pre-installed with their Windows. Technically minded, above-consumer users run either of them.

That tends to mean that Firefox and Chrome users get the most recent version of the browsers immediately when they come out. Internet Explorer, however, lingers on in old consumer operating systems and in old slow-to-upgrade corporate environments.

Ergo, the rule of thumb I use when creating a Web compatibility testing matrix is to test in the latest IE, the latest Firefox, the latest Chrome, the latest Safari, IE 6, IE 8, IE 7, and then if I must earlier versions of Firefox and Chrome. Older versions of those browsers and their market shares drop off quickly, but the total market share of IE is spread over its versions.

2 Responses to “A Rule of Thumb in Browser Compatibility”

  1. pberry Says:

    I test in the latest IE, then, once the product has settled down, through all other Windows browsers in market share order. Even if I run out of time (always), we’ve at least concentrated on the majority of users.

    I grab a new version of the market share once a month. Often browser+version move up and down the Top Ten.

    A realisation dawned on me while reading your comment about FF and CH being “sort-of niche browsers”: they may attract fewer users but those they do get are likely much savvier than your typical corporate IE user. To put it another way, I’m aiming at quantities of users rather than their perceived qualities (skills). Barking up the wrong tree?

  2. The Director Says:

    My point is that because the users of Firefox and Chrome are more technically skilled, they’re more likely to upgrade right away (if they’re not trying out release candidate before the original release, even). So one can expect the market shares of yesterday’s versions of Firefox and Chrome to fall off quickly, whereas IE is often dictated by corporate environments or sometimes technical limitations (IE 8 is going to be the most advanced IE that Windows XP users can ever get, for example, so as long as Windows XP desktops remain rampant in the corporate and home user world, IE will hang around). Ergo, one has to test deeper on IE for many reasons.

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