Browser Sniffing Needs To Die

Very Quickly and painfully if possible. It’s a lazy, discriminatory practice that works only to limit the choices of web browsers that people can use. What the sniffing does is detect the web browser that is being used so that the websites developers can try assume a few things about your browser. That inherently isn’t wrong but it attempts to do so based upon the browser being used, not the plug-ins that are installed or the web standards that are detected as being support.

Ever try to watch a video and you were told that you needed a newer version of Flash? That’s desirable, that’s what should happen if your browser truly isn’t capable of accessing content on a web site. With browser sniffing you get one of two things. The first and most common is a landing page that tells you that your browser isn’t supported, download another from a short list that is supported. The second is weird formatting, sometimes you may directed to a mobile version of a website or have certain features removed due to the assumptions of developers. It may be more work but at least it wouldn’t flat out lie about the features and capabilities of a web browser.

How can you confirm this is happening? Well the simplest way would be to try the site in the supported browser than have both browsers try accessing similar types of content but that doesn’t exactly prove that you’re being blocked by sniffing. The second way would be to change the identifying factor of a web browser that tells on itself – the user agent string. This is fairly simple to do in most web browsers but is arguably the easiest to do in Opera.

There is a menu in Opera that allows you to tell individual websites to identify as Internet Explorer/Firefox or to mask the browser as Internet Explorer/Firefox. Opera will normally identify as itself but with a quick tweak (Press F12 then select “Edit Site Preferences” then go to the “Network” tab) you can expose these options after being blocked, refresh the web page then see if the site will change. AT&T’s career website is one such offender (although it does offer a rarely provided link to switch to the full site). Just try surfing to att.com/jobs, most browsers will be given the full site. A few like Opera (at the time of this posting) will be redirected to the mobile site.

This is such an easily fixable issue, it would take no more than 3 minutes to resolve. What the site developer has done there is lazily toss every instance of Opera to the mobile version of the site when the user agent for the desktop and mobile browsers are significantly unique. This issue doesn’t happen with Chrome or Chromium despite the two having many, many more versions of the browser available and in use in the wild. If the developer could take enough time out to single out Opera then it should be able to do so properly.

How about government sites? Surprisingly, those actually render websites fairly well and adapt accordingly. At least in Michigan. There are a few hiccups, the 3rd District Circuit Court’s website will refuse to allow for efiling via Opera unless I mask the browser as Internet Explorer. The site demands Internet explorer and Silverlight for access. All it really needs is HTML 4 and Silverlight support. I also tried accessing the site via Kubuntu, a GNU/Linux OS, and I still needed to mask as IE. It detected moonlight (open source plug-in for silverlight) as being adequate for accessing the website and efiling cases online.

So we have one example of browser sniffing that impedes the employment and job seeking processes. The second example can affect users with legal matters. I believe that people should stick to using the web standards since I believe that open standards are a heck of a lot more important than open source and that open standards should always be fought for and defended first. It’s lazy to try to turn one source, one implementation into a standard because it will cause stagnation and development issues down the road. Internet Explorer 6 is a prime example, webkit looks as if it will become the next example.

The W3C is a standards body that many organizations submit to for assurance that standards will be developed and followed so that a user can access a website without being forced to muck about with compatibility issues. It’s why we don’t or at least we shouldn’t have sites that only “work” in just one web browser. There are a myriad of platforms and web browsers available for use today, the only reason that we can experience a similar/same web in all of them is because of the open web standards. Imagine if ActiveX actually took off outside of a few job sites, you may not be able to access this blog without the latest version of Internet Explorer.

Web browsers have a single job, show us the web. The differences between all of them is what they add to our browsing experience. Internet Explorer is the default experience of Windows and it just plain works now without many frills. Firefox helped to popularize extensions and is one of the greatest success stories of the open source world. Chrome is a very speedy experience that helped to introduce more rapid development cycles, using the web browser as a native client, separating tabs into multiple processes for increased stability and is generally just a Google lovers wet dream. Opera has been the R&D hub of the web, it’s introduced many, MANY features first and arguably the best.

Opera is insanely customizable, speedy and still offers a web browsing experience that can’t be equally matched with other browsers – even with extensions. I am biased (I don’t care, I’m not here to give you fair and balanced news. Just honesty and whatever I want to type about), I’ve been using the browser for about 7-8 years now and still have no plans to make a move elsewhere. I would have to give up way too much of how I use and access the web to go elsewhere. Some people refuse to live without adblock, I refuse to live without a buttload of extremely useful features with a brilliant implementation.

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