As part of our development process, we test our work on a set of different web browsers. The browser list varies on different projects depending on client requirements – current versions only for technology sites because their visitors tend to have up-to-date systems, some older versions too for sites targeting a more mainstream audience.

The standard list of our testing browsers (as it was):

  • Internet Explorer 6.X PC - current version
  • Firefox 1.5 PC_- current version_
  • Firefox 1.5 Mac_- current version_
  • Safari Mac
  • Internet Explorer 5.5 PC
  • Internet Explorer 5.01 PC

Why bother with these older browser versions?

There are small but significant differences in the way that different browsers handle layout instructions- particularly so between IE5 and current browsers. What might look great in the current version of Firefox may well be a strange mess of overlapping blobs in IE5. If you’re really styling, you can even cause the browser to crash and quit.

Part of the web standard movements original aim was to get developers to write HTML markup that adheres to specific web standards, rather than cater to the idiosyncrasies of various browsers. However, like it or not, there are lots of people that use Internet Explorer, and the thinking is that since not everyone is on the latest version of browser, it’s a good idea to test on older browsers. Our aim hasn’t been pixel perfection, but more to just check that the site is at least usable and degrades gracefully.

The rub

Now here’s the rub- it turns out that it is quite hard to install an old version of IE. You can’t just whack in an install CD and hit the button, or download a version from Microsoft, like you can do with most software (and many other browsers). As far as I know, the only way to _really _do this is to reinstall Windows from scratch, using an old installation CD that has IE as part of the install.

Some smart cookies (Internet Explorer v5): worked out how to create standalone versions of various browsers, which can be run on a machine that has a current version also installed. By using these for testing, we’re able to check what the page looks like in the current version of IE, as well as earlier versions – typically 5.01 and 5.5, which were popular releases.

I’d always assumed that there were folks out there that haven’t upgraded, so it was worth testing and tweaking for the IE5 crowd. There are also stories of IT departments that alternate versions of all software- so they’ll install v3, skip v4, install v5, skip v6, and so on. Following this line of logic, it makes sense that maybe there were a few large corporate networks that were skipping IE 6 and hanging out for IE7.

Is there anybody out there?

We were having a look at our testing process, and the discussion turned to IE5 and if it was still significant. At the end, we all agreed that it was probably no longer worth testing for.

Here’s why I think there’s no one out there:

1. It must be pretty hard to connect to the internet.

In this age of a paranoid Microsoft asking you to autoupdate every week, surely it must be pretty difficult to avoid all those update requests. As soon as you visit anything Microsoft related, you get pinged as a recalcitrant and sent down the upgrade path.
I’m sure that it is possible to connect and surf, but how realistic is it that there are a significant number of alert ignorers out there.

2. The corporations don’t skip

In my very quick survey of big corporate IT people, auto updates are seen as a better way of keeping users up to the Microsoft recommended level – rather than rely on periodic updates peculiar to that organisation. As Mr T would say, pity the fool in IT that didn’t install the update MS told them to install.
So much for the skip version myth.

3. It must be pretty hard to get through the install of anything

We tried installing an old windows on a rebuilt machine, and suddenly the install process is grabbing updated files from the internet- including IE6. Perhaps there was a button that I missed that gave me the choice, but you have to be quick. I’m betting that installing another MS application such as Outlook or Office also does a similar check and upgrade.

4. Web logs

We had a close check through some web logs of various sites, to try to establish the incidence of below 6 Internet Explorer users. There were a few in the period that we checked, which was weird – until we realised that these were Mac users (IE5 was the last version of Internet Explorer that was released for the Mac). It has been subsequently abandoned, and even Microsoft suggests that IE5 mac users try Safari.
Further to this, the incidence of these browser versions was around 0.5% – so not really significant in the scheme of things. Certainly not worth compromising elements of a page layout so that it will work in IE5.

Our new browser list

The spanky new list is

  • Internet Explorer 6.X PC
  • Firefox 1.5 PC
  • Firefox 1.5 Mac
  • Safari Mac - on request

We decided not to include IE7, as this seems to be in eternal beta.

So now, when we test our work, the set of browsers that we test with is shorter, more realistic, and actually reflects who’s really out there.

Browser update for both IE and FFox

The real IE7 has finally been released (October ’06), so we’ve added that in. To further spice up our browser testing, Firefox 2 is also out. It will be interesting to see the changeover patterns for each of these – historically Firefox people seem to be faster off the mark, but MS seems to be positioning IE 7 as an important technology update that will improve security, so it may well be relatively fast. Keeping in mind though that IE has a much larger and less tech savvy user base to change over, so they will inevitably take longer to convert.

So our spankier, shinier new testing list is now

  • Internet Explorer 6.X PC
  • Internet Explorer 7 PC
  • Firefox 1.5 PC
  • Firefox 1.5 Mac
  • Firefox 2.0 PC
  • Safari Mac - on request

Some links that might be useful for your own testing:

  • Evolt – old browsers that can be run as standalone
  • IE Tab – plugin for Firefox that allows you to switch between IE and FFox in the blink of an eye
  • Passler web stress tool – allows you to choose a browser profile, and then record and run automated tests on a site
  • Install IE7 – an install process for IE7 without actually installing
  • Explorer exposed – a handy list of explorer bugs worth checking if you’re stumped at getting something to work in IE

image credit: Sweetie187