“Firefox Only” Pages Considered Harmful

The Latest “Stupid Web Designer Trick” Is Nothing New

by Kai MacTane

Home > Writings > Essays > Firefox-Only Pages Harmful

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — for hundreds of years, the French saying that means “the more things change, the more they stay the same” has been ready to predict the latest silly trend in Web page design: pages designed “for Firefox only”. Apparently Firefox now has enough market share that this isn’t instantly suicidal for one’s hit counts — which would be good news, if not for the way people are abusing Firefox’s newfound popularity.

“Anyone who slaps a ‘this page is best viewed with Browser X’ label on a Web page appears to be yearning for the bad old days, before the Web, when you had very little chance of reading a document written on another computer, another word processor, or another network.”
— Tim Berners-Lee in Technology Review, July 1996

All over the world, people are using their Web sites as a way to exclude other people. A French conference page claims to be “Best viewed with Firefox” (right-hand side). You can find both text and a Firefox logo at the bottom of a Finnish photographer’s page. Back in the States, somewhere on the West coast, a site called AnimeNfo (not a typo) mentions in the bottom-right column that they’re best viewed in Firefox — although the text is hard to see if your browser is less than 950 or so pixels wide, as the black background stops and the white text is overlaid on a default-colored background (white in most browsers). [Update, 11 Mar 2006: AnimeNfo seems to have changed their CSS to fix the default-background bug.] Finally, Neon Sight Japan (which may actually be in the UK) mentions both Firefox and Safari at the very bottom of the page, which simply raises the question of whether they’ve heard of Opera or not.

In my quick tests, none of these sites displayed any better in Firefox than they did in MSIE 6.0.2 (both browsers installed on Windows XP, SP2). In fact, the Finnish photography was slightly more usable in MSIE, which doesn’t truncate HTML TITLE attributes after roughly 70 characters. And AnimeNfo’s default-background problem didn’t occur, either, meaning that the text that claims the site looks better in Firefox may be obscured by the site’s own layout bug in Firefox... but will always be visible in Internet Explorer!

But at least these sites are actually usable in Internet Explorer. It could be worse. They could be using Explorer Destroyer, a thoroughly ridiculous piece of JavaScript you can add to any page to make it display some kind of annoyance to viewers who are using Internet Explorer. It comes in three settings: “Gentle Encouragement” puts a huge splash bar at the top of the page; “Semi-Serious” gives the user a full page that they have to click through (like an interstitial advertisement — which we all know everyone loves!); and “Dead Serious” will simply block out anyone using IE, telling them they have to use a different browser to see your page.

So this means that people are using the World-Wide Web — the medium that was supposed to be the greatest example of informational freedom in the history of humanity — not as a way to spread information, but as a way to keep people from seeing their information. In essence, these people are saying, “I don’t care if you can actually read what I have to say. That stuff isn’t actually important; my real message is simply that I’m cooler than you, because I use a particular software product.”

I’d like to make it clear that this kind of mayhem is not something the Mozilla Foundation encourages or supports in any way. In fact, they even mention, in their Mozilla Trademark Policy, that “Mozilla disapproves of and does not provide ‘Best Viewed With’ buttons... ; Mozilla believe the web is best viewed with any standards-compliant browser.” (Scroll down to the “Linking” section. And my thanks to Lawrence Eng for pointing this out.)

You’ll notice that Freak Nation does not do any of this crap. And we’re not about to, regardless of how much we like open-source software. Because the important thing is not “Firefox at all costs”; the important things are standards compliance and users’ choices. (We aim for the former, to give you the latter.)

    Netscape 3.0   
These things used to be everywhere.

The Mozilla Foundation gets that, too. When they say they believe the Web is “best viewed with any standards-compliant browser”, it sounds almost like they’re echoing the name of the “Viewable With Any Browser” Campaign. For those who weren’t online ten years ago, the Viewable With Any Browser Campaign was a reaction to the sudden flurry of “Best Viewed With Netscape” buttons that sprouted all over the Web, back at the beginning of the first dot-com boom. There’s a few sitting over to the right, for historical curiosity’s sake. (Needless to say, these should not be taken as advice that you get a copy of Netscape Navigator 3.0 to view Freak Nation with!)

The “Viewable With Any Browser” Campaign took Tim Berners-Lee’s quote about “yearning for the bad old days” to heart and made it their motto. And eventually, the wave of “this site designed for Netscape” button-mania gave way to... “this site designed for Internet Explorer”.

For over ten years now, people have been battling back and forth over browser accessibility. Nobody ever wins; the only thing guaranteed is that users lose. No matter who’s on top at any given time, anyone who’s using another browser gets to be gratuitously locked out of at least a few sites, simply because someone thought it would be “cool” to use some kind of script, server-side filtering, or other browser sniff to make sure they could deliver the appropriate technologically- mediated snub to those heathens who have the temerity to use some other browser.

And then there’s a shift in market share, and the people who were “on top” last year suddenly find that their preferred browser isn’t as popular any more, and now they’re the ones being forced to use an unfamiliar and unwelcome piece of software...

The more things change, the more they stay the same. But instead of a flowery French phrase to describe the latest turn of the wheel, perhaps the best way to sum up travesties like Explorer Destroyer is the simple, sad aphorism: “Some people never learn.”

Kai MacTane is the Freak Nation’s webmaster. He’s been designing and building Web sites for 27 years now, and hasn’t ever put a “Best Viewed in Browser X” button on one. He thinks that gives him even more cool points than he’d get from providing free advertising for browser makers. In his spare time, he likes to learn from history and from other people’s mistakes.