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Why some websites don't work properly in your favorite browser

Marco Tabini | Jan. 11, 2013
It never fails: No matter which browser you use, and how well you keep up with its updates, sooner or later you end up finding a website that doesn't quite work the right way. Even more frustratingly, bugs and defects always seem to crop up more often on sites that tend to push the limits of what can be done with a browser, with activities like printing, interactivity, and complex animations frequent targets of malfunctions and misfirings.

Of rocks and hard places

In between these competing business needs and shaky standards, Web developers are tasked with the job of coding sites that takes advantage of as many advanced browser features as practical while reaching the widest possible audience--a job that can be downright impossible. Once written, sites must then be tested with as many different browser and operating system combinations as possible--another potentially monumental task that is time consuming and has a knack for resisting automation and one that can easily be, once it reaches a certain complexity, beyond the budgetary capabilities of many development shops.

Thus, most developers seek to reach a compromise based on the relative popularity of the browsers that their visitors use. A site that tries to cater to as wide an audience as possible tends to use fewer cutting-edge features, relying instead on time-proven techniques that are more likely to work even with old operating systems and browsing platforms. A site that has a more specialized target market, on the other hand, will tend to narrow down support to a handful of specific browsers so that it can take advantage of more recent advances in Web technologies. For example, though it does work with the Windows-only Microsoft Internet Explorer browser, could probably get away without supporting that particular option, while ignoring Safari would likely be a less optimal choice.

Keeping a backup handy

Inevitably, however, small issues have a way of falling through the cracks here and there: Printing might work flawlessly in Chrome, but not in Safari, and maybe only on a specific version of OS X. Some sites still insist on only working well with Internet Explorer, despite the popularity of devices--like the iPhone and the iPad--that only allow their users to browse the Web with WebKit-based browsers. What is one to do in these cases?

On desktop operating systems, the answer is as simple as it is pithy: Use a different browser. In my experience, while small cosmetic problems are fairly commonplace, websites that refuse to work at all with a modern browser like Safari or Chrome are relatively rare. When I come across them, however, I simply switch to Mozilla's Firefox browser as a backup.

On iOS devices, this problem is much harder to tackle, because Apple only allows third-party browsers to use the same version of Webkit that powers the mobile version of Safari. Still, in a pinch you can try an app like Opera Mini, whose servers pre-process and compress Web pages to improve their compatibility with iOS's built-in rendering engine.

In the end, while its results can sometimes be annoying, the competition between browser manufacturers has helped the Web evolve from the ugly pages of the 1990s into a technology that, today, encompasses everything from high-definition video to realtime 3D graphics. All in all, the occasional hiccup seems like a small price to pay for an open and vibrant Internet experience in which blinking text has been replaced by much more impressive memes.


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