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Choosing A-Grade Browsers

Posted @ 4:58 pm by Grady Kuhnline | Category: Technology | 0 Comments

I have a personal obsession with browser market share. Ostensibly, the point of studying market share is to tease out a reasonable testing strategy for your website. If you considered every release of a browser to be unique, you’d have hundreds of potential test scenarios. Because developers don’t have an infinite amount of time to test a site, there’s a real need to identify which browsers are statistically relevant for testing — and which ones can be safely ignored.

“Testing a browser” is all about ensuring that a website looks “as expected” in that browser. Because it takes time to check every single version of the browser, the goal is to test the website in browsers that people actually use. You also have to make an assumption that  non-tested browsers render similar enough to the versions tested. Most of the time, this is a safe assumption.

The browsers that make the cut for testing are called “A-Grade browsers.” Again, your website is very likely to render correctly on most non-tested browsers. However, only the A-grade browsers are actively tested during the quality assurance portion of a project.

On my personal blog I’ve posted a detailed analysis of the current browser market as of July 2012. It’s a little lengthy, but it’s hopefully worth the read, if you’re really interested in browser market share.

Top Browsers in June 2012

Data taken from  StatCounter GlobalStats and combined with the mobile stats.

Above you can see the top browsers from June 2012. The good news is that the top 3 browsers, Chrome, IE9 and Firefox, are considered “modern” HTML5-capable browsers. For this chart, all versions of Chrome are lumped together because the different versions are reasonably similar and the updates are automatically delivered to the user. This means that the vast majority of Chrome users are using the latest version. This is also true of Firefox (since version 4), Safari (to some extent) and Opera.

The only two “legacy” browsers on the chart above are IE8 and IE7. Microsoft does not have the same aggressive update policy as the other browser makers. This means that old versions of IE hang around for much longer than they do for other browsers. For instance, Firefox 2.0 and IE7 both came out in the fall of 2006. Today, Firefox 2.0 has about 0.05% (virtually 0) market share while IE7 still has 1.76% in the US. There are a lot of reasons for the longevity of older IE versions, but the net effect is that websites still need to be tested against these browsers.

Changes Since Last Year

While it’s disappointing to still see IE7 on the A-grade browser list, it’s comforting to note what browsers are not on it (IE6). And, as a bonus, the legacy browsers are trending terribly! IE6 and IE7 lost nearly 70% of their market share in the last year; IE 8 lost nearly half. Microsoft is openly celebrating the precipitous decline of IE6 and they’re actively encouraging users to upgrade to IE9.

The modern browsers all did really well. IE9 made the biggest overall gains, tripling its market share. Chrome and Firefox and Mobile also increased significantly.

Mobile Has Arrived

While the legacy browsers are taking a nose dive — and browsers like Opera and Safari are staying essentially static — mobile browsers are continuing to climb. Taken as whole, mobile is nearly 13% of the browser market. iPad, iPhone and Android make up 92% of the mobile market. In fact, all three mobile browsers have a market share that’s more than double IE7′s. All this means that it’s no longer possible to ignore mobile devices when building a new website.

There’s a few popular mobile strategies to choose from, including responsive design, specialty m-dot sites and even doing nothing at all. Even if you don’t have plans to make a responsive version of your site, you still need to test your site on a mobile device to make sure it’s usable. Thankfully the modern mobile browsers are as fully capable as their desktop cousins. Because these devices can handle the “real” web, there’s not a dire need to tailor your site for these devices if you don’t want to. Regardless of what your mobile strategy is, in 2012 you have to have one!

In many cases I’d advise a client to consider dropping IE7 in favor of focusing more on the mobile devices.  Currently, testing on iPhone and iPad isn’t terribly painful and will impact far more users. It’s very helpful that Apple’s product line isn’t currently very fragmented and their users seem to upgrade regularly.

Android is a bit of a wilder landscape. There are dozens of handsets and form-factors and vendor-specific OS features. Even worse, each handset maker has their own upgrade schedules for rolling out new OS updates to older devices.  It’s not easy to keep track of what underlying OS people are using. Thankfully, Google is making Android platform market share data available. As of this writing, it appears that around 63% of Android users are on OS version 2.3. Around 10% are on version 4 (the latest), and about 17% are still on version 2.2 (from 2010).

Our Current A-Grade Browsers

Below is our normal jumping-off point for the supported browsers conversation. The specific needs of an individual site are always taken into account. For instance, some clients still require IE6 support (although this is now exceedingly rare). Some of our clients are even starting to drop support for IE7, which is a sensible choice if it’s possible in your organization. Many companies are currently stuck on IE7, after having recently upgraded from IE6, but IE7 isn’t really found on a regular person’s computer anymore. The only way to get IE7 on your computer is to have a copy of Windows XP or Windows Vista without a service pack installed.

Including IE7 and mobile, the A-grade browsers account for around 95% of all  users . Dropping IE7 means that your A-grade browsers will still cover around 93% of all users. Your own site will have slightly different statistics but it’s certainly something to watch closely.

When making decisions about which browsers to include, some logical rules start to surface. Any browser with less than 1% is usually safe to ignore. Any browser that is under 2%, and is declining, should be marked for extinction. Any browser that is crossing the 2% threshold, and is climbing, should be watched closely. With that in mind, IE7 should be marked for extinction. And so should Android versions before 2.2 and older versions of iOS (there’s evidence that iOS users upgrade quickly).

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