COI browser guidelines: consultation works!

The final version of COI’s browser testing guidelines have emerged, and it’s simply wonderful to see a shorter, tighter, more standards-centric document than the draft I reviewed back in September. In fact, looking down my bullet-list of specific recommended changes, all of them seem to have gone into the final document. Cool.
The revised document is based on the principle of a ‘testing matrix’, showing ‘must test’ and ‘should test’ for versions of each leading browser, on Windows, Mac and Linux. Effectively it’s a direct lift from the BBC’s Browser Support Standards document (which, for the record, I highlighted in my response). You’re advised to review your matrix at every major website redevelopment, or at least every two years; and to publish your matrix on your site, within a ‘help’ or ‘accessibility’ section.
It includes a forceful statement in support of web standards in the very first paragraph, backed up by a full page on the subject (paras 17-24). But the 2% rule remains: ‘Browsers used by 2% or more of your users must be tested, and any issues resolved’, as does the insistence that you support Mac and Linux even if they don’t reach the 2% threshold. (And thankfully, the contradictory references on this have been removed.) There’s even a proper section on mobile devices – although I’d probably have made specific reference to the iPhone / iPod Touch; sadly though, nothing about games consoles.
And – hooray! – there’s a black-and-white statement that things don’t have to be pixel-perfect, killing off the draft’s notion of ‘semi-supported’:

There may be minor differences in the way that the website is displayed. The intent is not that it should be pixel perfect across browsers, but that a user of a particular browser does not notice anything appears wrong.

Quite simply, the final version is just so much better than the original draft. It stands as a great example of the benefits of opening these things up to the wider community. Who’s this Obama fella anyway?

COI's contradictory rules on browsers

Timely, given the release of Google Chrome, and the reopening of the Browser Wars: COI has just issued a consultation document, five months in gestation, on browser standards for public sector websites. Its 15 pages can essentially be boiled down to the following, based on an intriguing 2% rule of thumb:

17. Browsers used by 2% or more of your users must be supported.
18. Operating systems used by 2% or more of your users must be supported (although it rather undermines itself later on, demanding support for Mac and Linux).
19. The two most popular browsers on each supported operating system must be supported.
20. Browsers and operating systems used by less than 2% of your users may be semi-supported. This means that the content and navigation works but the website might not display correctly.

Like it or not then, we’re obliged to ensure the content, functionality and display all work ‘as intended’ on IE6 – although there’s no precise definition of what ‘as intended’ means. One would hope for a pragmatic (ie not ‘pixel perfect’) approach.  And it sounds like bad news for Opera, whose user base is highly unlikely to pass the 2% threshold, or hold the no2 ranking on any one OS.
There’s an all too predictable write-up in The Register; Andrew Orlowski opens with the statement that ‘a firestorm is brewing’, and quotes ‘experts’ who say ‘taxpayers will be forced to change their browsing habits and computer setup to accommodate the guidelines.’ I disagree with the first part, and I’m not sure I see the second as a bad thing. It’s entirely appropriate for government to advise people on suitable behaviour where their body’s health is concerned… why not also their PC?
Orlowski quotes Bruce Lawson of the Web Standards Project – and, as Orlowski neglects to point out, a Web Evangelist for Opera – who apparently said something along the lines of ‘designers should conform to commonly agreed basic standards, rather than browser idiosyncrasies.’ (Shame it’s not a direct quote.)
Philosophically, I can’t argue with that point. But pragmatically, it can’t work. The browsers are here, on the ground already; and Utopia it ain’t. You can’t tell people unable to use your site with IE6 that ‘hey, it’s not our fault Microsoft didn’t buy into web standards seven years ago.‘ And whilst the latest browser releases are getting closer to standards compliance, the current IE6 market share of 25% clearly shows (as does the 66% of people hitting COI’s own site) that it’ll take a l-o-n-g time for everyone to upgrade accordingly.
Deep down, I want COI to take a stand on IE6. As I wrote (coincidentally) the other week: development would undoubtedly be quicker, easier and most importantly, cheaper for the taxpayer. A friendly ‘government health warning’ could advise you to upgrade, for this and other good reasons. Others have already set the precedent. But I know such a brave step isn’t likely.
If anyone from COI is reading this, please consider the following to be my contribution to the consultation process:

  • There’s an inherent problem with the 2% thing. You don’t have to support a browser unless 2% of your own unique users are using it; but if the site doesn’t support them, they won’t be able to use the site anyway. Catch-2%, you might say. Whilst I see the value in the ‘2% of your specific user base’ rule, it may have to be a global assessment of market share.
  • Keep the geeks on board by including an explicit note about web standards, welcoming the progress towards better standards compliance… but acknowledging the reality of current usage levels, particularly as regards IE6.
  • Terms like ‘look as intended’ or ‘major/minor maintenance release’ are too vague to be meaningful. Similarly, there are problems with the get-out clause for beta versions (para 27), especially now Google (with its perpetual betas) is in the game.
  • There’s no recognition of emerging scenarios like the iPhone or Nintendo Wii (over 1m sold in UK). I accept I may be an ‘edge case’ here, but as video becomes increasingly important to the web experience, I find myself using the Wii – and specifically, the big telly in the living room – to browse the web.
  • You simply can’t make an exception for Linux (para 32), or indeed the Mac (para 35). Either the 2% rule stands, or it doesn’t. Grant one exception, and you’ll have countless others making an equally strong case.
  • If you’re specifying operating systems, you might as well go the whole way, and specify particular browsers and versions. This isn’t as impossible as it sounds: the BBC does it. There’s a strong case for the simply ‘contracting out’ the testing process to the BBC, and adopting their rules as the gov-wide standard. They are subject to the same accessibility obligations as any government site.

The consultation document is here, in universally browser-unfriendly DOC and PDF formats.

No extensions, no Chrome

It was the usual mix of excitement and fear as I downloaded Google Chrome last night: the former to see what Google would do when it had total control of the browsing experience, the latter in case it rendered any of my designs horribly. To be honest, there wasn’t much to report on either front.
Let’s not get carried away: Chrome is a web browser. I like the minimalist interface (with Vista-esque styling even on XP). The ‘omnibox’ is a great idea, as long as you’re happy with the privacy question. It’s kinda fun – and sometimes a bit frightening – to be able to see how much memory an individual page consumes, particularly if you can recall the days of the ZX81 and its 1K of memory. I’ll take their word on the stability and security features, but (happily) I’ve yet to see any evidence. The automated ‘favourites’ on new tabs is a nice touch, I suppose. But for all this, it’s still just a piece of software which renders HTML, CSS and Javascript into pages.
Chrome’s main selling point seems to be its improved Javascript performance – according to one test, it’s 2.5x faster than Firefox, and a ridiculous 22x faster than IE7. That’s going to matter in the future, allowing Javascript interfaces to become more complex. But I don’t imagine many websites will feel ready to take things to that higher level for quite some time.
Will I be switching? No – for one simple reason, and that’s the surprising lack of plugin capability. The help documentation declares:

Currently, Google Chrome supports the most popular plug-ins necessary to display the Web correctly, including Flash, Acrobat Reader, Java, Windows Media Player, Real Player, QuickTime, and Silverlight.

And that’s it – which is a problem. Firefox is my do-everything window on the world. I get an alert when new email messages are detected by the Gmail plugin I use. My bookmarks are fed into the browser courtesy of the Delicious plugin. Without these and many others, I’m feeling lost in cyberspace.
It’s a curious omission, given that Google’s quite happy for developers to write their own Gadgets for Google Desktop and iGoogle. According to Google blogger Matt Cutts:

I’m sure that extensions/add-ons are something that the Chrome team would like to do down the road, but the Chrome team will be a bit busy for a while, what with the feedback from the launch plus working on Mac and Linux support. I’d suggest that you give Google Chrome a try for a few days to see if enjoy browsing even without extension X. A lot of really cool extension-like behaviors such as resize-able textareas and drag-and-drop file upload are already built into Google Chrome.

So it looks like Chrome won’t be able to give me the online experience I’ve grown to expect, not any time soon. It confirms the theory offered by Shane Richmond yesterday, that Chrome is an attack on Internet Explorer rather than Firefox. It’s for people – the vast majority of people – who don’t know or care about customisation. It will give them a streamlined online experience, with all the plugins they need and no more, within a controlled environment. If you want more, well, you’re probably on Firefox already… and, like me, unlikely to move.
Quick update: it looks like the new Javascript engine planned for Firefox v3.1 (known as TraceMonkey) is even faster than Chrome. But for me, the most interesting comparison in this new data isn’t between Chrome’s engine and Firefox v3.1’s engine… it’s between XP and Vista. Chrome’s V8 is 30% slower on Vista; TraceMonkey is 20% slower on Vista. I’m no expert, but that doesn’t sound good.