January 18, 2009

Is Requiring a Firefox Plugin Akin to Designing for IE Only?

Internet Explorer doesn't have a monopoly on the browser market like it did nearly a decade ago, as Microsoft systematically suffocated Netscape - speeded by the company's own failings. Today, IE reportedly has just under 70 percent market share, with Firefox owning just over 20 percent and others, including Safari, Google Chrome and Opera, making up the remaining 10 percent. (See: Wikipedia for a stat table)

At Internet Explorer's peak, it claimed more than 90 percent share, as recently as 2004. As it became the de facto standard, it was common for Web designers to optimize their pages for IE, or even require users to run IE to access the site. While the practice is less common these days, there are still a select number of Web applications that push users toward IE, or as many Mac and Linux users find themselves told, to use Windows.

As the Internet mob has repeatedly spoken, designing for IE is wrong. The browser has never quite nailed Web standards the way other browsers do, and to force users to have a certain configuration to get to something that should have universal access flies in the face of one of the major tenets of the Web - that data will be presented in the same way to all current browsers on any platform. But even as this has been agreed to, some cutting-edge applications are pushing Firefox extensions or Greasemonkey scripts to simply work. And unfortunately, even if doing so means the development team can leverage the browser in new, innovative, ways, it dramatically limits their market share, and keeps people who might like the applications, but prefer another browser, out.

As an Apple Safari user, I know there are some places where the browser falls short. For whatever reason, it isn't supported by toolbars, including StumbleUpon or the Google Toolbar. I can begrudgingly accept that developers aren't going to make work-arounds for such small market share, but the practice of purposefully designing solely for Firefox and requiring people to download an extension seems counter-intuitive, if the goal is to have wide adoption. So while I understand that Firefox users are vocal and love their browser's extensibility, the entire practice has me shying away from new services like Clikball, and rarely using Feedly, even if I think they're cool.

But there's no outrage and frustration when developers demand Firefox extensions the way you see the same tumult when a site demands you use IE. It could be because the practice is more rare, or because the Firefox community likes being catered to. But I believe it's time to move away from demanding plugins and extensions to our browsers. There are enough tools out there, and enough tricks you can do with code to make the Web do some great things. If you can build it without making me download yet another program, or switch browsers, it'd be much appreciated.