Thursday, April 27, 2006

From the extremely bad ideas department (updated)

A new project, calling itself Explorer Destroyer has proposed a campaign to end Microsoft's browser dominance. They are requesting webmasters to add a scripts to their sites that has three settings. The scripts only activate if the user comes to the page using Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. The first, called "gentle encouragement" will place a message offering a Firefox download. This is simple advocacy. If a webmaster doesn't mind having banner ads on his/her site, this one isn't too bad. The second, called "semi-serious," puts up a splash screen that claims that Internet Explorer "is not compatible with [the] site." If the site is well-designed, chances are, that's a lie. That, and, the annoyance is just the webmaster acting like what we technical people call “a dick.” The third is the one to which I seriously object. Entitled "dead serious," it will arbitrarily block a user from viewing the site if he/she is using Internet Explorer.

I'm all for people dumping the IE security hole for Firefox (or any other browser, for that matter). But, this is the wrong way for anyone in the open source community to go about advocacy.

The Internet is based on neutrality and standards-compliance. Any computer can connect to any other computer on the Internet, independent of who sold it, what processor powers it, what network card physically connects it or what operating system it's running. All that the computer has to do is conform to publically available the TCP/IP networking standards. Similarly, all modern browsers can read the data from all websites because they conform to (X)HTML, ECMAscript, and a host of other specifications. There is no longer any reason for a website to sport a "works best in browser X" button.1 Any website that really doesn't work on one platform or another is, in effect, breaking the Internet. This is certainly the case where the site is fully or nearly standards-compliant and just rejects requests from one platform out of spite. Respect for these concepts means allowing users to have a choice, even if you think that choice is a bad one. The alternative is having a number of mutually incompatible Internets, and, in that case, everyone loses.

(UPDATED and edited: I misunderstood how Google got involved in this.) Google is promoting their own extension of Firefox -- Firefox+Google Toolbar, and any referral to it through AdSense gives website publishers $1 for referral. The Explorer Destroyer project is using that feature so that its scripts are equivalent to that kind of referral. The Explorer Destroyer project, not Google, is effectively making the Mozilla Corporation and the Mozilla Foundation into pawns in the Google vs. Microsoft war by attacking Microsoft using Google's money.

Beyond contributing code, the best way for a webmaster to support open-source is to refuse to write in anything other than platform independent and standards-compliant code.2

Google can keep their money.

(via LinuxWorld)

1 The fact that some websites do not respect browser neutrality and Internet standards is a statement against the programmers who wrote them and/or the tools they used. While there are some features that are available in some browsers and on individual platforms, and not others, there are frequently alternatives that will do the job just as well or better and maintain platform neutrality.

2 Which, incidentally, might also break the way it looks in Internet Explorer. But, that's a bug in IE, not the website. If I find out about a display problem of my website in IE, I will usually fix it, but I will not break my own page's standards compliance just to fix a bug in a browser.

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The really interesting part is that many government websites do not let you use Firefox. For example, the FAFSA site. AMCAS (medical school application site) also does not allow Firefox. Thankfully, both still allow Netscape.
This reminds me of (though it is not exactly comparable to) the "Netscape Disabled" movement in the mid-late '90s.

Netscape's programmers had taken to adding non-standard markup features in the browser, and the resulting compliance by web designers — who touted their pages as "Netscape Enabled" — meant that many pages could only be viewed successfully with Netscape. In response, some designers started coding pages with the opposite intent: any browser responsive to the Netscape-specific markups would show the page as garbled gibberish.
A government website that is completely inaccessible to non-IE browsers most likely violates also Section 508 accessibility standards for the disabled (since they require the site to be accessible to those using screen readers).

FAFSA seems to have fixed the problem somewhat. I can understand why they're only reporting support for Windows and Macs. It seems likely that they simply don't want to answer customer support questions about other systems, but that they'll work anyway.

AMCAS is a private organization, and the only way to get private groups to clean up their acts are (1) not to use them, if you have a choice and (2) filing bug/complaint reports with the webmaster. If enough people file reports to the extent that .

Incidentally, AMCAS now claims to support Firefox for "Windows only." Since the rendering engine is the same between platforms, that pretty much means it works, but they don't want to answer Linux or Mac questions. This is not true, by the way, if they use Flash or Adobe PDF forms on their websites.

On the other hand, if the claim that "users of other browsers have reported experiencing problems" is true, it may mean that they used some nonstandard feature.

lawrence --
The difference between now and the mid-90's is that there are now very usable W3C-defined web standards, and browsers that actually support them reasonably well.
Agg, I did it again --

The third paragraph should say:

AMCAS is a private organization, and the only way to get private groups to clean up their acts are (1) not to use them, if you have a choice and (2) filing bug/complaint reports with the webmaster. If enough people file reports to the extent that they notice that people care about web standards, they will be forced to comply.
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