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UK Govt screws browser choice

Bureaucrats play the numbers game

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A firestorm is brewing over proposals issued by the UK's IT advisory body over which browsers the public sector should support. Taxpayers will be forced to change their browsing habits and computer setup to accommodate the guidelines, say web standards experts.

The Central Office of Information quietly published its consultation document on Friday, containing a proposal that public sector websites may snub browsers with a low market share. The CoI suggests that web designers need not test against browsers with a share of less than two per cent. The bureaucrats recommend that designers place an advisory notice asking users to switch to a "supported" browser.

But it's not the arbitrary figure, apparently plucked out of the air, that has enraged professionals - but the entire approach. The Web Standards Project's Bruce Lawson called it "entirely back-to-front", arguing that designers should code for the web, not individual browsers. Designers should conform to commonly agreed basic standards, rather than browser idiosyncrasies he said. Amongst other projects, the WSP designs the Acid2 and Acid3 compatibility tests for browsers.

"The guidelines should be advocating a specific development methodology: they should recommend designing to Web Standards," he wrote. "Costs will be driven down, even if testing is performed across more browsers, because there will be fewer inconsistencies and less recoding to fix inconsistencies."

Lawson laments that a public sector only just emerging from the "IE only" mindset will actually spend more time developing than it needs to.

"Are we back to the bad old days when webmasters strove for pixel-perfect rendering, even on governmental sites which are largely content-driven rather than design-dependant?"

The guidelines recommend that browsers with less than two per cent share, which leaves Opera, and other browsers in the cold.

"Opera is requesting the UK government to code for the web, and ensure people have a choice when it comes to which browser they want to use," said a company spokesperson.

Oddly, the bureaucrats fails to follow their own logic, with the requirement that Linux should be supported - even though it "fails" the two per cent test. The most popular browser on Linux, Firefox, amassed just 153 visits to the COI site in July, compared to 19,777 from Internet Explorer.

(By the same COI figures, IE accounted for 83.25 per cent of traffic, followed by Firefox on Windows with 8.68 per cent, Safari with 3.99 per cent, and Firefox for Mac with 2.53 per cent.)

And it's particularly harsh on Opera, which not only fails the "disability concession" granted to Linux, but because its popularity is underestimated. Because Opera can masquerade as "Internet Explorer" or "Firefox", web server logs fail to reflect its true usage.

British and European users have until October 17 to respond: the guidelines and form can be found here. ®

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