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The Web Browser Is King, Open Web Standards Are Queen

Browser compatibility

CNN recently reported on a funeral for Internet Explorer 6.

Anyone who has been in the business of Web software development will tell you it's a bittersweet thing -- except without the bitter part.

When we were designing an earlier form of WorkXpress, no less than 20-30 percent of our engineering time went to what's known as "cross-browser compatibility." This is the act of designing parallel pieces of code that were separately invoked, depending on the browser. If a user had browser version A, then one set of code would run. If a user had browser version B, then another set of code would run. This type of development was a frustrating waste of time.

It was made even more frustrating by the fact that WorkXpress always has been on the cutting edge of rich user-interface techniques, such as AJAX andJavaScript, for drag-and-drop and other capabilities. The more on the fringe you get with your programming techniques, the more work is required to support each browser's code standards. These incompatibilities are anathema to innovation.

Unfortunately, this was a necessary evil due to the historically even distribution of users across several major browsers. In order to not exclude one-fifth of the population, you had to design your Web functionality to be usable by someone with Explorer 6 and 7, FirefoxOperaSafari and Chrome. As a Web user, you don't have to be aware of these compatibility issues. If you are, then the company isn't properly doing its work.

So what's the deal with IE6's funeral?

There are fewer people using IE6. Therefore, there no longer is a need to develop support for it. This is particularly good news because IE6 was much farther away from open Web standards than all of the other modern browsers and thus required a lot more effort to maintain.

There are predominantly four major underlying browser engines from which all commonly used browsers are derived: IE, Gecko(Firefox, other smaller browsers), Webkit (Chrome, Safari) and Opera; for mobile devices, there is iPhone's Safari and Android, which are both also built from Webkit.

Increasingly, each of these browser engines is moving toward open Web standards. Even Microsoft has announced its intention to become "Web standards compliant." The vision is that the developer only will have to develop one set of code and it will run equally on each browser. This would create a better experience for both developers and users.

Fortunately, "when" is more likely than "if," at this point. The momentum toward open standards already has been very material. Today, we spend less than 5 percent of our time developing cross-browser support, resulting in a material productivity increase. When Google released Chrome, we only identified a short list of incompatibilities throughout our entire code base.

So what funeral should you expect to attend next?

Many aren't going to like to hear this, but I believe Flash is heading the way of the dinosaur. HTML5, the next set of Web standards, envisions much of Flash's capabilities but in a non-proprietary format. We at WorkXpress already are forsaking Flash and moving in this direction rapidly. The fact that few mobile browsers even support flash, yet do a great job with HTML and most JavaScript, only lends weight to Flash's demise.

As a company that does a lot of Web development, the movement towards open-standards compliancy by the four major browser engines and the emergence of HTML5 can't happen soon enough. Flash had a great run, but like IE6 its usefulness may have run its course. Rest well.

This was originally posted on the Central Penn Business Journal Gadget Cube.

More Stories By Treff LaPlante

Treff LaPlante has been involved with technology for nearly 20 years. At WorkXpress, he passionately drives the vision of making customized enterprise software easy, fast, and affordable.

Prior to joining WorkXpress, Treff was director of operations for eBay's HomesDirect. While there, he created strategic relationships with Fortune 500 companies and national broker networks and began his foray into the development of flexible workflow software technologies. He served on the management team that sold HomesDirect to eBay.

During his time at Vivendi-Universal Interactive, Treff was director of strategy. In addition to M&A activities, Treff broadly applied quantitative management principles to sales, marketing, and product line functions. Treff served as the point person for the management team that sold Cendant Software to Vivendi-Universal. Earlier positions included product management and national sales trainer for Energy Design Systems, an engineering software company. Treff began his professional career as a metals trader for Randall Trading Corp, a commodities firm that specialized in bartering and transporting various metals and coal from the then-dissolving Soviet Union.

Treff received his MBA from Pepperdine University and a BS in chemical engineering from The Pennsylvania State University. http://www.workxpress.com

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