Browser support is not a minor thing to consider when building web projects. Whether developing a website for a client or building a product, one of the most important things to clarify right away is what level of browser support is to be expected.
Browser support should be an explicitly defined item, even for small tools and projects.
Put browser support in the contract
When we do client work, browser support should be in the contract. I'm not terribly opinionated on what level of browser support is proper, but it's always a good idea to have access to the client's current analytics to see what browsers actual web visitors are using. You can make a more informed decision that way, versus using global numbers.
Desktop browsers that generate the most debate for what is right to support are older versions of Internet Explorer. Specifically, IE8 seems to be particularly controversial right now. While the browser still has 10% market share, a high number in my opinion, I see many template providers and website consultants ignoring support for it.
Pitfalls of vague browser support
This worries me a bit. If people that make products, like a slider script for instance, don't explicitly state browser support, inexperienced developers may assume browser support is good. Then, when they use it on a client site, it could cause problems. Best yet is when the client themselves are on an old browser and the feature doesn't work.
I'm not blaming people that release free code for developers doing dumb things. I'm saying people that release any code, free or commercial, can save themselves headaches by explicitly stating desktop browser support.
Examples of vague browser support
Let's take my friends at WooThemes for instance. They make great products. However, on two of their most popular items, it's difficult to figure out browser support.
Their popular FlexSlider script has both a demo page and a Github landing page, neither of which offer any clues for browser support. And on their theme side, their flagship framework, the Canvas theme, has a (somewhat hidden) browser support section, but it simply says they support major browsers, which I'd be worried if they didn't. I think they could do better than that.
I got in touch with Matty Cohen, the product lead at WooThemes, and he said I made some good points, and they are going to look into putting some notes about browser support for FliexSlider, and also think how they can better clarify their support policy for themes. He told me they support all modern versions plus one version back. In other words, for IE, they support back to IE9 currently.
And then there is my friend Mike McAlister. Mike is not afraid to admit he doesn't want to support IE8, and as you can see on his ThemeForest theme profile for his popular Pocket theme, he doesn't. And that's fine. It's a choice he made, it's clear on his ThemeForest profile, and it's probably fine for his target audience. But while ThemeForest does a nice job with specific browser support on their theme pages, Mike should probably offer more than “supports all major browsers” on his OkayThemes landing page.
The definition of “support”
A likely cause for the vague definition of support many people use for products is, well, they don't want to actually have to debug the myriad of problems customers could come to them with. And knowing friends who do a lot of support, they will come to you with any browser problem, your product's fault or not. I understand their concern.
But I'd still encourage them to use some alternative language to “support” for legacy browsers. Product makers could say “tested in” or “should work” or something along those lines, perhaps with a note that while only “modern” browsers are truly supported, as in tested and debugged when a customer reports an issue, even older versions “should work.”
The best example I can think of for a feature that qualifies for such treatment is the use of
box-sizing: border-box. As Paul Irish notes in his post on the feature, without a polyfill for earlier browsers, IE7 and below will be completely borked by using
box-sizing: border-box. This is a worthwhile thing for people to know! Yet, IE8 does support this feature. So a theme developer could say (if this is the only feature they are concerned about for their IE8 browser support), that the theme is supported by major browsers current and one version back, but “should worK” in IE8 as well.
Buyers would appreciate such clear helper language. I know I would.
But you can't fit all this into a sales page
You don't have to fit these long descriptions into a simple sales page. I truly think detailed browser support documentation is a valuable sales tool. Misinformation, or non-information simply hurts a buyer's perspective.
Explicit support declarations help. You could have a “Cross Browser Compatible” section as I show above that WooThemes uses, but add a simple link to a documentation page that highlights a full browser support and expectations policy.
What about mobile support?
Mobile browser support is very tricky. Many buyers or clients could conflate mobile browser support with mobile device support. However, most modern mobile browsers these days are the same as desktop ones: Safari, Chrome, IE10. In client work, I prefer to state that the website is tested at various sizes with modern mobile browsers (I usually say I test in mobile Safari as well as by scaling the desktop browser to various sizes), but that it “should work” in all modern browsers across devices.
If a client balks at such a statement, I remind them about how proper responsive design is to fit any browser, and go into a short story about device fragmentation, and how the best I can offer is support of modern browsers and a goal to fit all device sizes, versus specifying a mobile view for whatever specific device they have a concern about.
It's also worth noting that mobile devices have much shorter hardware life cycles and more frequent updates than older PCs and Microsoft Browsers, since Microsoft sometimes supports products for years after newer releases come out, and some users get stuck on OS-level software (like Windows XP) far beyond a timeframe we may expect. Though to Microsoft's credit this problem goes away as software isn't only sent in a box with a new computer anymore.
Browser support for client work
For client work, as I said at the beginning of this article, it's good to have explicit browser support based on actual user statistics available via analytics. But for standard support, I tend to like think that supporting the latest versions of Safari, Chrome, Firefox, Opera and IE can suffice, with “graceful degradation” on legacy versions of IE back to IE8.
What I mean by graceful degradation is that a website for a client should work, in general layout and style, back to IE8 by default. Hopefully IE8 will reach low enough global usage soon to warrant dropping. Depending on your project and audience, your mileage may vary, but I've seen a ton of small business and big bureaucracy people still stuck on IE8.
However, web designers and developers should not be crippled by legacy browsers, and elements of a web page that can be enhanced by modern features should be, even if they don't work on legacy browsers.
Browser support issues aren't going away anytime soon
Unfortunately for the consideration required, but fortunately for the further development of our web technologies, we are going to be dealing with legacy browser support for a long time to come. As Flexbox starts getting more popular for production environments, SVG becomes an industry standard without fallbacks, and various HTML5 APIs are further utilized, we will need to continue to make determinations about what browsers to support, and when to support them.
I'd also like to warn against ignoring support for the sake of it, and instead encourage folks who decide not to support a feature for a particular device, user group, or browser, to do so in a reasoned way. Brad Frost drives home the point in a pretty powerful way.
This “problem” of browser support is a good thing. This is the advancement of the web. This is how it gets better. As the web evolves, we get the great advantage of new technology. We simply need to be mindful our user bases may not be utilizing the latest technology that we do. We should be clear about our choices for what we support, and do our best to clearly educate users of our products and our clients about what browsers and features we support, and why we make those decisions.