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Friday, November 29, 2013

Browser statistics

A lot of discussion goes into browser statistics. Whenever a company is creating a new web application they need to decide which browsers will be supported and their order of importance.

Years ago it was a given that Internet Explorer was the #1 browser. Just the shear volume of Windows users and lack of serious competition in that area made Internet Explorer the dominant browser.

Then along came Firefox and later Chrome. Additionally, Mac Desktop is becoming a large enough market that Safari is worth considering.

So how do we decide which browsers we should support and what order we should rank them in?

There are many sites which give statistics on browser usage:
W3 SchoolsStatCounterW3 CounterClickyNetMarketShareWikiMedia
and probably a whole lot more to check. If we look at the different sites we can see some radically different numbers. Some claim Chrome is close to 60% of the market. Others have Chrome around 30% of the market.

Why the big difference? Different sites will gather statistics on different people. The W3 Schools site is very popular among programmers and software testers. I tend to like Chrome because it has the built-in Inspect feature and other helpful development tools. Firefox is okay when you install Firebug or other tools but often we want to test with a clean browser and don't have these tools available.

Starting with Internet Explorer 8 it came with development tools. The tools in Internet Explorer 9 are better but nothing as good as the tools in Firefox or Chrome. So Chrome and then Firefox are going to be the browser of choice for programmers and software testers.

Not surprisingly, W3 Schools is the site which claims Chrome is almost 60% of the market. But it will be biased towards power users, programmers and testers. My mother doesn't use a computer. If she did it would be a Windows 7 with Internet Explorer 11 or a Mac with Safari 6.1.

So which statistics site you select depends on your target audience. You don't want to use the statistics from W3 Schools if your target audience is my mom.

What if you have a website and you are going to be updating it or adding another website with the same target audience? Then you have been hopefully gathering statistics on your existing website. Statistics from your existing website will tell you exactly who your users are. If you statistics say that 97% of your users are using Internet Explorer 6 then you need to support Internet Explorer 6. You could make it painless to upgrade your existing user base to a new version of the same browser but odds are it is safer to just support what your users are using.

The only time I would say you might not want to completely follow the statistics on an existing website would be if you are attempting to grow your market and know the new customer base is going to be a different type of user. Let's say that my user base is traditionally Internet Explorer users but I want to start targeting Mac users. I want to make sure that I don't sacrifice existing users for the new user base. So I will continue to value the Internet Explorer users but I want to start looking at statistics for when the operating system is Mac OS X. If I drill down to just Mac OS X users, which is the dominate browser?

In addition to which browser there is also the resolution for the display. This tends to be a little easier to decide if we are talking desktop. You pick the small display which is widely supported. Originally, I would design a website so it looked good on 640x480. Then the average display was 800x600. Later we would start seeing wide displays like 1440x900. I found it easiest to set a minimum size that would be supported. So you don't want so many things on a menu that the menu is longer than say 600 pixels high if you supported 800x600. We can use tools to resize the browser to the different sizes and make sure things still look good. This is easy to do on pretty much any desktop today.

Back in the days of EGA and VGA the number of colours you would support was an issue but today it isn't really something people worry about any more.

This is how I generally recommend clients decide on which desktop browsers to support. It does not really address the idea of mobile browsers. This is an area which is still in flux. I see a lot of different mobile browsers. My own personal experience has been updating my browser can make it more unstable. So if I have a browser which runs on my device I'll stick with it. However, if I get a new device I tend to find the newer browsers come with it and run better than old browsers. So you should be seeing a wider range of browsers on mobile devices than on desktops. Additionally, mobile devices include smart phones and tablets. There are full size tablets, mini tablets, large smart phones, medium smart phones and small smart phones. The different resolutions can vary much more than desktop devices.

Additionally, I cannot take a large device and resize the browser to small sizes. The idea of a window on a desktop doesn't exist on many mobile devices. So testing on the different resolutions is a major concern. Fortunately, with emulators you can run a software emulated version of a device and check that the website displays properly on it. Or you can use features of our existing browser to pretend to be a specific mobile device. This will change the size and User-Agent information to make your web application display as if it was getting rendered on a mobile device. Again, Chrome Inspect has some built-in features in this area which are quite helpful. They should not replace emulators or even better actual devices when doing system testing.

Ideally, in a test lab I will have all the machine with the largest display we want to support. I will then use a virtual computer player like Virtual PC, Parallels, VMware, etc. to emulate all the other operating systems. A Mac works really well because you can use it to run Mac browsers, a virtual PC like Parallels or Fusion to run Windows, Linux and Solaris x86, XCode to emulate iOS devices and Eclipse or IDEA to emulate Android devices.

If the client runs mostly Microsoft products and Mac isn't a concern then you can use Virtual PC on a Windows 7 device to run Windows XP and Windows 7 virtual machines for free.

For virtualizing all the Windows machines right now you can go to to download virtual machines for Windows XP, Windows 7 and Windows 8. Everthing from Internet Explorer 6 to Internet Explorer 11.

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