Missing the Point: Web Applications

I recently went to try online banking with National City only to come face to face with the following error message:

Alert – browser does not meet requirements

Your browser does not meet minimum security requirements for Online Banking. If your browser does not support 128-bit encryption, you will not be able to enroll in Online Banking. In addition, your browser version must be Microsoft® Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher, or Netscape Navigator® 7.0 or higher

I am browsing using Firefox 1.0.3, which shares a rendering engine with Netscape 8.0. However, the developers behind National City’s website have chosen not to recognize this browser. I’m guessing Safari, Opera and other modern browsers are also locked out of the online banking fun. Please note that this isn’t meant to be an attack on National City, they are only one of many sites that lock out users based on their browsers and I’m sure they are not malicious or bad people. I am disapointed that the bank I bring my money to has a substandard website and that got me thinking about the larger problem of locking people out of sites based on their choice of browsers.

These browsers are all far more capable than Internet Explorer 5 or Netscape 7. They support secure 128 bit SSL connections, render HTML and CSS better, and are full of more features lacking in National City’s preferred browsers. There is no good reason why a website should restrict its users to Internet Explorer 5+ and Netscape 7+ when there are more and better browsing options out there. Thankfully there is a way to get around their browser detection.

Circumventing Browser Detection

Firefox user can use Chris Pederick’s User Agent Switcher to tell the web site that they are using Internet Explorer while they are actually using Firefox. This is a handy extension that solves a problem we shouldn’t have to deal with.

I’m not sure if Safari users have any similar options for circumventing senseless browser detection. Needless browser detection is a real problem for Apple customers, particularly now that Microsoft has dropped support and development for Mac/IE. If you buy a Mac you risk being locked out of sites that you need to use.

Won’t someone think of the users?

Developers are often the ones who are making the decision to lock out customers from certain web applications. They fail to approach the site from a users perspective. Many users don’t even know what “browser” is. They’re just trying to use the “InterWeb” and are doing it with whatever is on their machine. Those of us building the web sites should do our best not to make them think about what browser they are using. This means making web applications work in as many browsers as possible.

Using New Technologies

Sometimes we have to limit the ways users access a site due to technological limitations. If your site requires encryption of data (a must on most financial or medical sites) then users will need a browser that supports SSL encryption. If your site uses multimedia features only available using the newest Flash plug-in, then visitors will require that plug-in. If there is no other way to provide something to your customers then this may be a reasonable practice. In these cases browser sniffing can help you generate specific and helpful error messages for users.

Each site has to evaluate for itself the pros and cons of using cutting edge technologies that may exclude some users. I’m not saying we shouldn’t push forward. Sites like Google Maps or tools like Basecamp simply can’t be made to work with many older browsers. In cases like those it is okay to tell users that they cannot use an older browser, but the site should be made to work in modern browsers. Make your application work with as many browsers as possible without sacrificing core functionality, no more and no less.

Living the Dream

Part of the Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for the World Wide Web is making information available to users regardless of the browser, operating system, or hardware they are using. This sets websites apart from OS specific applications that are made only for Windows or Macs. Web applications have two primary advantages over traditional desktop applications:

  • Instant Upgrades – New features reach all users instantly
  • Platform Independence – Can be viewed using any browser running on any operating systems and hardware

This means that a single web application can be developed and then used by a graphic designer on his Mac G5, a server admin using his Linux box, an executive on his PocketPC, and a soccer mom on her Dell. One application for all. Failing to take advantage of Platform Independence when developing a web applicationcan can cause us to lose potential users. Lost users mean lost money and I’m reasonably confident that that is not the goal of any business.

Kevin Hall
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