Remember when web sites used to show phrases like “Best viewed in Netscape 3.0”? Web browsers used to be riddled with inconsistencies, bugs and proprietary features, thanks in large part to the so-called browser wars. Today we’ve largely solved these problems and as long as you’re using a reasonably up to date browser you, and more importantly your customers, should have pretty much the same experience of any web site in whatever browser you prefer.

There is one fly in the ointment though. It takes the W3C (essentially the internet’s powers that be) quite a long time to ratify new features. Consequently browser manufacturers, the likes of Mozilla, Google and Microsoft, have been allowed to use a feature called experimental vendor specific prefixes. Essentially they’re a way for browsers to temporarily provide features (things like drop shadows and rounded corners) before they’re completely defined by the W3C. The key word here is ‘temporarily’; they’re intended as a stop gap until the real features are fully supported.

Unfortunately, some web developers have been designing web sites on the assumption that these prefixes will be available for all eternity and that’s led to a potential problem. Some of these prefixes have become so ubiquitous that some browser manufacturers are considering implementing prefixes from other vendors in their own browsers; thus breaking both the ‘vendor specific’ and ‘experimental’ aspects.

Whilst this is nothing like as severe as the old browser wars scenario it does have significant implications for the future of stable, simple, cross browser support and may well lead us back into a world where developers have to spend their valuable time, and your valuable cash, hacking together awkward and complex code just to get things to work right.

So, what are the real-world implications for you when you’re looking for someone to produce and maintain your web presence? In short, there are two things you need to consider:

  • Make sure your developer is committed to producing high quality, standards compliant code. Unless you’re an expert yourself, this can be difficult to ascertain but simply asking the question is a great first step and it’s certainly something that should come up in your initial negotiations if not as an explicit statement on their web site.
  • This is just one more reason why it’s important to consider your web site as an ongoing project rather than a fire and forget commission. Make sure you build a solid, long-term relationship with your developer and be prepared to invest at least some minor future effort on web site maintenance and upgrades.