Bradner's column: 'Best with ...' is bad for you

All too many Web sites have buttons on them labelled something like "Best viewed with Browser X." If you press the button, you get connected to a place where you can download that browser.

All too many Web sites have buttons on them labelled something like "Best viewed with Browser X." If you press the button, you get connected to a place where you can download that browser.

It has become quite common for browser vendors to cut deals with Web site operators who wind up agreeing to push a particular browser. Part of the deal is that the site puts a button on its home page that tells people reaching the site that they should be using a particular vendor's browser -- a typical advertising ploy. It has also become common for Web page operators who dislike one of the major browser vendors to feature a button pushing an alternate browser on their Web sites. As long as it's just advertising, pro or con, this is fine. But it is bad for us all if the Web site designer goes beyond advertising and purposefully uses features only present in, or absent from, a particular browser.

To quote Tim Berners-Lee, the generally acknowledged creator of the Web: "Anyone who slaps a 'This page is best viewed with Browser X' label on a Web page appears to be yearning for the bad old days, before the Web, when you had very little chance of reading a document written on another computer, another word processor or another network." (Technology Review, July 1996).

The main purpose of standards is to ensure that users have options for products that implement the standards and that there is competition among product vendors. Any time people decide to avoid using standards-based products or to use features that are beyond what the standards have defined, they reduce the availability of products that can support their activities. In the case of Web site operators, they reduce the flexibility of site users. I fail to understand what advantage Web site operators get from making it hard for their potential customers to use their sites.

There is a Campaign for a Non-Browser Specific WWW (http://www.anybrowser.org), from which you can get a "Works best with any browser" button for those sites that are smart enough to understand that making it hard for customers is counterproductive.

Disclaimer: Harvard's last campaign was for a bit more than $US2 billion and did not concern itself with browsers. In any case, the above observation is mine.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@harvard.edu.

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