Sacrificing Web Standards for Short-Term Gain?

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Editor’s note: Sean Gerety is a user experience geek and Microsoft Regional Director (a program for independent developers who connect Microsoft with the developer community). Follow him on Twitter @IdeaKitchn.

When I saw 4ormat’s TechCrunch post, “Bootstrapped Startup Saves Over $100K by Dropping IE,” I first called shenanigans, but then congratulated them on their brilliant marketing ploy. They might as well have titled the article, “Startup Saves Over $100k in Marketing Costs by Pretending not to Work in IE”. I tested 4ormat’s admin site in IE10 and used the IE developer tools to bypass the page block in IE9, and it works just fine. They probably saved another $100k by not testing in Opera (try loading the signup page in Opera).

Reading the numerous kudos and criticisms in the comments, it did get me thinking about what browsers you should target for your site. I’ve grown up on a diet of Zeldman’s Web Standards First and that the belief that the web is for everyone. That’s what makes the web great. For someone to advise otherwise is bad for business and short changes the community of the web.

I noticed that 4ormat did make the effort to ensure that customers’ portfolio sites do display correctly in Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera and IE, so why not go all the way and make the rest of the site work? And I’m not talking about supporting IE6, I’m talking about modern browser support. It’s not that hard to do. Today you can use tools like BrowserStack to load and test a site quicker than you can start up a virtual machine. It’s not that hard.

A Dirty Secret

Most web developers, myself included, do the bulk of their development and debugging in a single web browser, whether Chrome, Firefox, Safari or IE. They perform quick tests in other browsers, fix some bugs (usually in their favorite client side development tool, e.g. firebug) and then release it to the web or a killer QA team.  Using web standards is the best way to get more mileage for your site. Locking yourself into any vendor, will eventually code your site into a corner that will maroon you into incompatibility. We saw this with IE6, and it feels like we are back on the slippery slope.

Bad for Business

Tyler claims that his company saved $100k in development and debugging costs over three years by not testing in IE (or Opera).  While plausible, it’s also irrelevant.  The big question is how much revenue did he give up by not supporting IE?  Sites like Tumblr and Dribbble are doing an amazing job by supporting everything.  At last glance, Tumblr have a total of 51,205,107 blogs and is still growing.

Designer showcase Dribbble shows what’s possible to when a site is built on web standards and progressive enhancement from the beginning. Dribbble used cutting edge Web standards like CSS3 transforms that had very little browser support at the time, but gracefully handle legacy browsers. Although it launched nearly a year after 4ormat and is still invite-only, Dribbble’s popularity has skyrocketed, with at least an order of magnitude more unique visitors than 4ormat, according to compete.com. At the very least, Dribbble shows that it’s possible to build a large audience among designers by focusing on Web standards and supporting major browsers rather than “Best Viewed With”.

Tyler’s experiences might be relevant if he was building this five years ago. However, we now live in a world of modern browsers. He should remove the page block for IE9 and start signing up everyone to take advantage of all the free press that 4ormat.com has received.

Make the web for everyone…