The return of browser lock-in

Posted on January 6, 2013

Back in the day, everyone used Internet Explorer 6, and websites were optimized to use it. There were countless users who would go to a site only to find that it didn’t work because they weren’t using IE and their browser didn’t support certain functionality. Eventually browsers like Firefox and Chrome came out and ended Microsoft’s near-monopoly. That was some years ago, and now the web has real standards – HTML5, for example – to which everyone has been conforming. Right?

Well, not really. There have been a number of sites that have come out recently to showcase HTML5’s capabilities, but once again, users are seeing messages that they can’t view these sites. The only difference this time is that these users aren’t using Chrome.

Full disclosure: I’m a Firefox user, and have been basically since the beginning. I’ve got Chrome installed on my computers and will use it from time to time, but Firefox is my everyday browser.

Anyway. In the past two weeks, at least two posts I’ve seen on Hacker News – one to a slide deck used at Google IO in 2011, and one displaying CSS3 animations – were both locked for only Webkit users. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve experienced this, though, and it definitely won’t be the last. And yes, I’ll concede that these two most recent examples were for very specific uses and probably weren’t meant to be production quality, but that’s besides the point.

Given how the HN community, and really most recent web developers, are all about interoperability and web standards, building for a specific browser seems really backwards to me. All of these standards exist in the first place to make sure that the web is as open and accessible as possible. We were supposed to be getting away from browser-specific prefixes and implementations, and it seems like parts of the community are backsliding. There’s also a difference between building something that modern browsers (IE8+, e.g.) can use, and building something that only a single browser can use. These days, we have graceful degradation and that sort of thing, so slapping on a “Sorry, you can’t view this page” message seems even more disjointed. What’s interesting to me, though, is that people are far more willing to defend the practice now. When it was IE that dominated the market, people had no problem loudly complaining about it. Try it now, though, and you’re going to find yourself either downvoted or in several arguments.

I can’t think of any examples offhand of this happening in a real production environment, and I really hope it doesn’t come to that. I can’t help but wonder, though.

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