Back to the Browser Monoculture?

Folks who’ve been around the web for a long time recall the “bad old days” when Internet Explorer was the dominant web browser. Back then, it was common to visit websites that were obviously broken on non-IE browsers. Rather than fixing these problems, developers would include banners nudging users to download the latest version of IE (or sometimes, if their organization was particularly enlightened, Firefox.) This would be a problem for folks like myself who didn’t use Windows computers.

In the best cases, rendering was the only thing that was broken in these sites. In many cases, functionality would be broken. In my small business back in Panama, we used to keep a Windows computer in the office for government transactions (e.g. filing certain taxes) that mandated the use of Internet Explorer. Yes, the browser monoculture was so ingrained​ that even governments expected (and reinforced) it.

Then the web standards movement came along. Little by little, sites started to work in different types of browsers. The explosion in mobile web access that followed the introduction of the iPhone drove the adoption of web standards even more strongly. Now there was an incentive for designers and developers to think about the structure of web pages beyond the presentation of particular form factors or browser rendering engines. It took a while, but eventually,​ things got much better.

Sadly, we seem to be backsliding to the bad old days. Lately, I’ve noticed many web applications not working well with my browser of choice, Safari. Keep in mind: this isn’t some random, obscure browser; it’s the default on the Mac, iPhone, and iPads. Still, I’m running into more and more web applications that simply don’t work well on Safari. I increasingly have​ to keep Google Chrome permanently open as my “web application” browser alongside Safari, just because I know Chrome always works.

This is understandable ​since Chrome has a bigger market share than Safari. But it’s not good. I don’t like how Chrome behaves on the Mac; Safari is a much better citizen of the ecosystem. But at least on the Mac you have the choice of setting Chrome as your default web browser. Not so on the iPhone and the iPad; there you must stick with Safari as the default. I want my browsers to always be in sync between platforms, so Safari is my baseline. You could blame Apple for this situation​ since they could choose to make it possible to set Chrome as the default browser on iOS. But even if they did, the situation isn’t ideal. I like Safari and how it integrates with the operating systems I use it with. I just want things to work well with it.

(One of my rules for computing sanity is to stick with the default web browser for whatever ecosystem you’re; working with. I suspect that part of Chrome’s popularity is due to the fact that so many people use Windows on their desktop combined with either iPhones or Android devices on mobile; this necessitates defaulting to Chrome as the browser of choice since it’s one that is available in all three ecosystems.)

Now that Microsoft has curtailed further development of the Edge rendering engine in favor of Chromium, I expect that more and more developers are going to opt to test on Chrome exclusively. This makes me sad; it harkens a return to a time when I had to constantly find workarounds for broken web experiences. Monocultures are seldom good.​

(Editorial note: I checked this post for grammar and spelling using the Grammarly extension on Safari. It has bugs. 😦 )