Do we get a choice anymore?

by William Crawford

I've got a problem. I'm the CTO of a company that develops web based systems for the pharmaceutical industry. Our product's user interface pushes the envelope pretty far, and we spend a lot of time making sure it's compatible with all the different web browsers our clients might use. We've actually got it pretty easy in comparison to companies that produce web sites for general public consumption, since corporations tend to standardize, which gives us a nice little list of things we have to support. So far none of them are using Mozilla. In fact, 100% of them use Internet Explorer as their base browsing platform, with enough copies of Netscape 4.7x floating around to keep things interesting.


As a result, I've got IE on most of my computers. I do have Opera at home, which I use for most of my regular browsing and research for writing, but I'm generally stuck with IE. It's just too much hassle to switch back and forth between browsers, and, overall, the latest versions of IE render HTML well. Opera, as nice as it is, doesn't always get things right, although this is often the site's fault as much as the browser's. The Yahoo Groups web interface is one example of a non-Opera-safe environment, although it remains usable. I just make sure the entire company stays clear of Outlook.


It's still driving me nuts. About a month or so ago I installed a new workstation and, when setting things up, neglected to install Macromedia Flash. As a result, I've been largely spared some of the noiser, more intrusive advertising that has recently become de-rigeur at most commercially funded web sites. But IE does not want me to forget this fact. Every single time I access a page with some plug-in based feature I get either a download plug-in box or, when I disable that, a modal pop-up box informing me that I'm being denied the full browsing experience due to my dark-age browser settings. In some cases (www.doonesbury.com being the example that triggered this rant, as someone emailed me a link to Sunday's comic on 802.11 war driving) every page will trigger two of these messages, since the X10 pop-under ads want Flash too!


I've gone through the configuration dialogs with the proverbial fine toothed comb, and have found no way to disable this. At this point, I'm more than willing to have someone email me and say that I'm a twit who forget to look in such-and-such a place. But I doubt that such-and-such a place actually exists. After all, most of the viewers of msn.com use IE, and their advertisers want to be able to operate effectively. What I'd really like is the opportunity to turn off plug-ins from third parties and in windows I didn't explicitly create myself, although working around that particular limitation would be pretty trivial.


If we had true standards compliance this wouldn't be an issue. If web browsers all rendered content (plug-ins and all) the same way, I'd be able to do much less IE specific testing and would therefore have much more choice in browsers. Browsers could then compete on user interface and feature sets, and users wouldn't be locked into IE with plug-ins engaged in order to view most sites. But we don't, it's not in the offing, and it looks like I'm going back to switching between multiple browsers.


Meanwhile, if anyone can tell me how to disable that pop-up I would be eternally grateful.

Can developers assure widespread acceptance and usability if they're not operating in the same environment (in this case, IE) as their user community?