Browser wars: What I learned after fighting this battle for decades

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Jack Wallen describes how web browser developers and website developers could work together to end the browser wars.

Image: iStockphoto/scyther5

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At this moment, I have 11 web browsers installed on my production desktop. Not one, not two, not five–11. How did I get here? How did I arrive at a moment where I have far too many web browsers installed? It’s been a journey. Let me explain.

This isn’t about an operating system or an ethical conundrum. It’s about software. More to the point, it’s about software that works–that’s the problem.

It all started when Firefox started feeling bloated. It became sluggish and less than responsive; that wasn’t on me. I could clear the various caches and even do a reinstall, but the newer versions didn’t perform in the way I needed. On top of which, Firefox didn’t play well with the various CMS tools I had to use.

SEE: Top 5 programming languages for systems admins to learn (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

On to a different browser…

  • I lived on the Edge–too prone to crashing.
  • I got Brave–very secure, but too intrusive.
  • I sang the praises of Vivaldi–too much pointing and click to get the job done.
  • GNOME Web–forget about it.
  • Chromium–lost sync.
  • Chrome–not bad, but lacking features I like.
  • Tor Browser–too slow.

Eventually I landed on Opera, which is where I currently stand. Of all the browsers I’ve used so far, it’s checked the most boxes:

  • It’s lightweight, even though it has a ton of features
  • It’s fast
  • It renders well
  • Workspaces can’t be beat
  • It plays well with most of the services I use
  • It has a native Linux version

Some might say the only caveat is that Opera isn’t open source. For me, that’s not a deal-breaker. I need the right tool for the right job, open source or not. So long as it runs on Linux, I’m okay with it.

Here’s the thing: It would be great if I could find that one browser that I liked and use only that one. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I can use Opera for most things, but there are sites that only work with specific browsers.

For example, Zencastr only works with Brave, Chrome and Edge. While using Brave, I couldn’t download zipped files from Google Drive, an issue that has since been resolved. With Firefox, pasted documents into most of the CMS tools were never formatted correctly. For years, a site I was required to use for a particular organization only worked with Internet Explorer, and then, only on Windows. Let’s not forget that sometimes watching Spectrum cable will some days work on Chrome and some days not, regardless if the cache has been cleared.

It can get incredibly frustrating. I can only imagine how frustrating it might be for those who aren’t IT admins or tech-inclined.

It always seems like there’s some issue with the browser I’m using. Not a single one of them is without issue. Even Opera (the closest I’ve come to a browser being issue-free) sometimes has problems with cut and paste in Google documents.

It shouldn’t be like this. Users shouldn’t have to go through a litany of browsers just to find one that works. Or worse, they shouldn’t have to use a combination of browsers to do what they need to do.

A monumental task

To be fair, I get it. I understand how challenging the task must be for browser developers to solve such a problem. It’s almost unfair what they have to go through. Imagine you are tasked with having to create a piece of software that works with millions of websites. That problem certainly shifts a share of the blame to website designers. 

There are also standards to consider. The W3C created a very specific set of standards, called the Open Web Platform, which should serve as a guideline for every single site and browser developer on the planet. 

That set of standards includes:

Every business should be required to conform to these standards to ensure a consistency of experience, regardless of the browser used. If standards are met by everyone involved, you could trust that one browser would work exactly as expected. In that reality, the browser war would come down to selecting a piece of software with the feature set and performance that best suited your needs.

We know that’s not going to happen. There are so many moving parts to this issue that it would take a massive effort for it to come to fruition.

Website development

It’s not just about standards in web browser development. How many times have you gone to a website, only to find an element of that site doesn’t work? You then open another browser to find that it will work with the alternative browser. Or maybe there’s a feature that doesn’t work at all, no matter which browser you use. Links are dead, accessibility errors, missing images or ads that block text. 

There’s an old adage, “don’t break the web.” That saying very much applies to web developers. What it means is that any new web technology should be backwards compatible with previous iterations. In fact, all new web technology should be backward and forward compatible. That’s not always the case. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve visited a site that previously worked on Browser X, only to find an upgrade to the site would no longer play well with that browser.

The solution

There should be an obvious solution to this: standards. However, that’s never been the case, and it probably never will be. 

After decades of fighting this battle, I’ve finally drawn the conclusion that my own personal browser war isn’t waged browser against browser, but browsers against sites and services. I have to know which browser I can use with specific sites and make sure to keep those browsers installed and updated. In some cases, I have to keep older versions of browsers around, just in case.

In the end, the only way to end this war is for web browser developers and website developers to come together and agree upon a single set of standards and stick to them. Set aside the idea of competition and understand the priority should be on creating an ecosystem that works best for the public. Until the day that happens, I’ll keep 11 browsers installed on my desktops and laptops and try to remember which browser to use for which service and/or site–that’s my own personal browser war.

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