What is a Browser?
The browser is probably the most used programme on your computer but many people do not know which browser they use, or even what one is. Well put simply a web browser is a piece of software that requests information from the internet and interprets the code it is written in so that you can see things like websites, pictures and videos. In short you are using a browser every time you use or 'browse' the internet.
What Browser Do I have?
There are many different browsers available such as Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Safari - and those are just the main ones! You will be able to identify yours by the icon you click to start it.
• Internet Explorer, made by Microsoft i.e. the same company who made Windows. This is often the default choice however it is resource heavy and slower than its competitors. That means it is harder for your computer to run and web pages take longer to appear on your screen.
• Google Chrome, made by Google the Search Engine. It is currently the most popular choice with many people favoring Google Chrome. It is lightweight and simple: instead of a separate address bar and search bar there is a unified box that does both - a big advantage since many users get the two confused! It's fast too, although the optional extensions can make it unstable these are not the default - added by the user (at their own risk) to customize the browser more to the users liking.
• Mozilla Firefox is very nearly as popular as Google Chrome. Part of its appeal is it will run on all Operating Systems including Windows, Mac, Linux and Unix. Basically whatever sort of computer you have can run it. Firefox is not the fastest - about average as speed goes - but it is very reliable. Things that run poorly (perhaps more taxing things like browser-based games) on other browsers generally run smoothly in Firefox. As a web developer I find its add-ons very useful.
• Opera is a browser that is little known but growing in popularity. Faster than Internet Explorer it is standards compliant, reliable and provides a good user experience.
• Safari is made by Apple who make Mac computers and it is the default browser on a Mac. It is fast and efficient but not very popular because Macs only have a small share of the Personal Computer (PC) Market.
How do Browsers affect my website?
Visitors to your website will use different browsers. They all perform differently which can affect how your website looks and performs. Although there is work being done to create a universal 'web standard' with agreement upon which way is the correct way at the moment it is just an ideal.
What you see on your screen (which likely also has different brightness, contrast and resolution to others), with your browser, will not necesarily be the same thing others see. For example your layout may look central in Internet Explorer but list slightly to the right in Opera!
Generally the differences won't be major (unless someone is using a very old, out-of-date browser) but they can make an attractive website look unattractive. Sometimes it means bits won't work for some users.
How to please all the Browsers
What you want is a website that displays as intended in all browsers. So how do you get that?
1. Be Web Standards Compliant.
This is the universal ideal I spoke of earlier, where there is one agreed on 'correct' way to display website design code like html, php and css. We are getting closer to that ideal so sticking to the standards that exist so far is a very good idea. Your website is more likely to display correctly everywhere if it is standards compliant.
I have all 5 of the main browsers installed on my computer so I can make sure my websites work in all of them. Most people will be using these 5 so it is a reliable way of testing that a website will work for the majority of people.
However there are many more not quite so well known browsers as well as older versions of the popular ones still in use, so I check these using 'Browser Emulators' like browsershots. Emulators are not 100% accurate but they do give you a good idea of what your website will look like on different browsers and where problem spots may lie. I also try to make my websites 'backwards compatible' meaning they will still display on older browsers.
3. Bug Reporting
Sometimes a visitor to your website - perhaps a friend or kind stranger - will tell you they encountered a problem. If this happens it is always good to ask "What Browser are you using?" Why? Because when you check the website the bug may not show up for you, but still be there for other users on different browsers! Suggesting they update their browser can also be a good idea because the problem may sometimes be at their end. Older browsers lack many of the capabilities of newer ones.
Unfortunately fixing a problem for one browser may cause a different one in another! This means that code 'fudges' or ethical 'hacks' need to be used. Pieces of code targeted at specific browsers to tell them how to perform in order to overcome the problem area. Most browser compatability issues can be solved this way however it often isn't worth the effort for minor ones; it takes time to write code and spending a lot of time on tiny errors usually isn't worth it. It's good to aim for perfect but sometimes you need to say '"close enough!"