Thursday, September 12, 2013

WEB101: Browsers - how in the Wild Wacky World did we get here?

Once upon a time, on the internet ...

It was 1991, and I was having a one-to-one tutorial with my cosmology lecturer, Professor Fred Combley, regarding a presentation on the Big Bang I was due to do in a few days.  Behind him was a VAX terminal that he'd left on, and I could just about make out the word CERN on the screen from where I sat.

If you had asked me back then what on that screen would revolutionise the world, I would have guessed it was some results from a collision experiment that would change our understanding of the Universe.  And I'd be wrong.

What was revolutionary what how the text had got onto the screen.  Professor Combley was one of a team of nuclear physicists which included Doctor Susan Cartwright (my other tutor who I'm still in contact with) from the University of Sheffield.  They were part of a huge network of physicists working on the Large Electron-Positron Collider in Geneva.  However being so geographically spaced, they needed something to help them to communicate and share information easier.

Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist and physicist who was working for CERN thought he had a solution.  It was to provide a series of interlinked hypertext documents defined in a language called HTML1.0.  These pages could be accessed via the internet using a program called a browser, which would render them onscreen.  In his quest to make sharing information easier, he invented the very medium you're reading this on, the world wide web.

The world wide web takes off ...

The usefulness of the world wide web soon became apparent, even outside of the world of physics.  It was a phenomenon which soon snowballed over the next 20 plus years as more and more people got involved on the world wide web.

As the world wide web took off, there were two factors which really complicated the life of the modern day tester ...

Factor 1: Everyone started to make browsers.

Originally it was Netscape, who built one the first browsers for UNIX machines.  They were soon followed Opera, then Internet Explorer ... more and more followed.

Mixed in with this, the different browsers treated HTML slightly differently.  In 2000 I worked on a naval intranet project where a page was designed to read a table of the days events, and show these events as items on a 24-hour clock.  The page looked beautiful in Netscape, but in Internet Explorer, which interpreted the screen co-ordinates differently for the events, it was ugly and messy.  We had to put conditional logic into the page to work out which browser it was one, and treat the two browsers completely differently.

Many companies decided that rather than keep up, their customers could only use Internet Explorer (IE) for their website, this didn't seem too much to ask when most people were on a Windows variant, and 90% of people used IE anyway.  But times have changed.  People have Apple and Linux machines now, and have drifted away from IE in increasing numbers.  And many potential customers have machines dating back a bit which don't even support the latest version of IE.

Upgrading the Windows license for your company is a big investment - many companies have so much software that works on a particular platform, that migrating is a major undertaking.  Back in 2009, I was consulting at a company where our machines were still running NT - and was asked if I could test on Google Chrome (it's uninstallable on NT, in case you wondered).

Factor 2: It was just too darn successful

Take a look at the first web page ever published ...

Today, it's barely recognisable as a web page.  Now take a look at a couple of more modern examples ...

When Tim Berners-Lee imagined the World Wide Web almost 25 years ago, modems worked at what we think of as dial-up speeds.  He couldn't imagine being able to stream a video at dial up speed.

As the web became more popular, people pushed the definition of a web page, and it evolved.  They started to include pictures, then audio and video as internet speeds increased.  From being a single page of information, they started to be broken down into panels as peoples monitors got bigger.

As this happened, HTML, the language which made browsers possible, evolved - it's now on version 5.  Java the programming language came about in 1995, and people started to embed some programming into the browser layer in Java, Perl and a variety of other scripting languages.

With what we're doing on browsers changing, naturally the browsers themselves are changing to evolve to this demand.  Hence can the website you're developing today still be effectively rendered by a browser that's a version or two behind?

And this is the dilemma for the modern business - do you want to only reach potential customers with the latest/recent browsers?  That's not a tester decision to make, it's not even a developer one.  It's one that marketing people need to provide guidance for.

Fortunately help is at hand ... there are lists out there that help making the decision.  This map here helps show the most popular browsers (but not by version) ...

Most websites, if you already have one, can monitor the traffic they receive.  This covers the page views I got this month by browser ...

And by Operating System ...

Most companies don't choose to service everyone, but to make sure they're covering their core users.

From those stats above, I can see for instance, there's a good case for checking my page content and how it looks on IE, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera.  That would cover about 94% of my audience with 5 browsers.

To my shame, I have to admit I've never checked it on Opera!  Ooops.

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