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18 February, 2004

You WILL use Firefox, or else...

I'm considering installing Firefox 0.8 as a second browser on my home PC (I use IE6 ordinarily).  Or I was, anyway.
Doing a little casual research, I found that Ben Goodger (one of the lead developers of Firefox) has reconfigured his blog to block access to anyone using IE; such users are redirected to a page encouraging them to upgrade.

Whilst acknowledging that this is his personal site and he is perfectly entitled to restrict access as he wishes, and that IE isn't as standards-compliant as it ought to be, I certainly can't applaud the decision to ban users. As Chris B. says in a comment at Neil's World:

"It just seems rather silly to me. Wouldn't it be better to display a little box of text to IE users which says something like 'This website, and many others, would look better if you were using a browser such as Firefox'? Not just silly, but against the spirit of an accessible Web. An ugly site is better than no site for an IE user.
Isn't the whole idea of Web standards so people can choose which browser to use?"

It's far better to present an argument for switching browsers than to deliberately exclude people: persuasion, not obligation.

After all, whilst Firefox is still only at the pre-release preview stage, a massive 97% of visitors to the Ministry do so using IE v.4 and above; it's hardly reasonable to demand people abandon the market-leader, irrespective of the quality of the alternatives.
Don't get me wrong: Firefox was sounding pretty good until I read of this 'my way or the highway' attitude from a lead developer. I know this is his personal choice, not 'the company line', but it doesn't exactly endear his product to me.


This is very silly. If Ben wants to "ban" IE from his personal site, that's his decision (not necessarily one I agree with, but still). You might not be aware of this, but there are hundreds of sites that "ban" browsers other than IE for no particular reason. For example, there is literally no way that I can book cinema tickets from Why? Because all browsers other than IE are effectively banned (effectively because it appears to be incompetence that prevents other browsers from accessing the site rather than a deliberate decision to ban 1 in 20 people). Until recently banned alternative browsers even though simply rewriting the UA string to spoof IE allowed the site to work perfectly.

Fortunately, sites like this are much less common these days, but it's a real problem if you don't have access to IE. There is rarely a good technical reason to ban alternative browsers, whereas there is often a good set of technical reasons why IE would be banned from many sites if it had 5% market share rather than 95%. My site, for example, accepts IE but the 'experience' is much worse than with Mozilla or Firefox since IE makes a total mess of the layout and doesn't have any support for MathML content.

I haven't looked at Ben's site in IE (because, as I repeatedly say, I don't own a copy of IE) but it might be weeks of effort to find all the layout problems and fix them for IE users. That certainly isn't unheard of when trying to make Web Standards work in IE - see for example. Given the audience his site appeals to and the fact that it seems to be low priority to him, the decision not to fix the layout in IE seems reasonable (after all, web standards may be about compatibility and free choice but IE doesn't work with those standards). Banning the browser seems extreme but at least it means that the user understands why the page doesn't work rather than just observing a broken layout and assuming the designer is an incompetent fool. Personally, I might take the approach used by Jacques Distler: before banned IE, but either way people have to be told that it's their browser which is defective rather than the site.

I certainly wouldn't use this as an excuse not to try Firefox (or at least, I would try and be consistent and see if Microsoft play nice with their competitors** before using IE).

** They don't. Ever.

Posted by jgraham at February 22, 2004 06:00 PM

Something to remember is that Ben doesn't 'ban' (in quotes, denoting a metaphor) IE, he bans (no quotes, denoting a literal, intentional ban) the browser. This isn't an accidental incompatibility which inadvertently excludes people, but a deliberate effort to prevent people entering the site.
As I clearly acknowledged, that's his right, but I don't respond well to being told to browse in a site owner's preferred manner; web design is about enabling, not deliberately constraining. Whatever the merits of browsers, the decision should lie with the visitor, not the content provider.
Given the choice of changing browser to access a particular web site or simply going elsewhere, elsewhere it is. No big deal, but when the person making the obstruction is a lead developer of a rival product, that does make me less inclined to try his product, whether that's rational or not.

Potential users don't need an excuse not to try Firefox, they/we want some justification to try it! Why would someone wish to invest time in downloading (on narrow band, in many cases), installing, configuring and learning a new browser, when the current one is perfectly adequate for one's purposes? Curiousity? To comply for the sake of compliance?
Okay, there's an element of 'devil's advocate' in that last paragraph, but there is an important point buried therein: the producers of new software need to win the hearts & minds of potential users, and such gestures from lead developers are unhelpful.

Posted by NRT at February 22, 2004 07:11 PM

Sure, the quotation marks were probably out of place. I'm not sure why I included them, since misuse of quotation marks is something I find really annoying. To be clear, however, people like Argos have been deliberatly banning non-IE either now or in the past without having any good technical reason to do so (last time I counted there were ~1700 open bugs in the Mozilla bug database which involved part of a site not displaying as expected or the site simply rejecting the user). So Ben rejecting IE users is hardly unique, although this is one of the few cases in which the situation is in favour of people using alternative browsers. I also get the strong impression that other web designers would love to leave their sites broken in IE because of the amount of work it would save them, but realistically know it's not an option because of the marketshare issues.

If you are particuarly disinclined to use browsers where the parties involved break their website in competing browsers then IE is out; various parts of have (in the past, possibly not anymore) sent different and broken style rules to alternative browsers, so it appeared they were unable to lay out the page. Problems with MSN caused Opera to release a Bork Edition which translated into Swedish-Chef.

That doesn't excuse Ben of course, but if you're looking to be consistent in the criteria you use when judging products, it's worth knowing.

Are Ben's actions helpful? No. I wouldn't do what he has done. But then I often think that Ben's actions are shortsighted or unhelpful (and sometimes I'm wrong). The fact remains that Firefox is a browser. If you are really looking for reasons to use it, I can offer (off the top of my head, the website probably has more:

  • Popup blocking. You probably have the Google toolbar anyway, but Firefox does block popups.

  • Tabs. It sounds stupid but using a tabbed browser makes using a non-tabbed browser seem painful. It's trivial to open up several interesting links from search results and have each page easilly accessible without having your taskbar so cluttered that you can't see the icon titles.

  • Custom keywords. Custom keywords allow you to use the URL bar for quick access to sites e.g. if I type in "bug query" I am taken to It can also be used for searches e.g. if I type in "define spartan" I get a definition of spartan.

  • Text zoom. Judging by your website you have pretty good eyesight, so maybe this doesn't apply, but the ability to zoom text regardless of how the designer sized it (IE won't zoom text sized in pixels) is really useful.

  • Extensions. There are Literally Hundreds of extensions avaliable to enhance the browser functionality. If, for example, you dislike flash adverts, you can use "Flash Click to View" which prevents Flash from displaying until you click on it.

  • Ad blocking: The default firefox comes with the ability to block images from adservers such as There are extensions that enhance this functionality.

  • Developer tools: If you develop websites then the bundled DOM Inspector extension and the Venkman javascript debugger are essential tools.

And I didn't mention web standards (or even the possibilities of user stylesheets) even once ;-)

There are lots of excellent reasons to use Firefox. In fact, there are lots of excellent reasons to use most 'alternative' browsers; whilst IE stagnates they are innovating. Sure, IE might do the job, but it doesn't do an awful lot that Netscape didn't do in 1998. The rest of the world has moved on. They have great new features which make browsing a more pleasant experience. They have better standards compliance which should enable exciting new web design, without the compatibilty problems that plauged the late 90's. Don't let the attitude of one developer prevent you from trying a superior product.

Posted by jgraham at February 23, 2004 12:05 AM
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