Designshift

on point: from archive 2004

But What About Netscape 4?

Clive Sweeney — January 12, 2004

That's always the question. We've been hobbled by Netscape 4 for at least a few years now. It hasn't gone away yet, but finally we're cutting ourselves free.

What version is it up to now? Netscape 4.72, 4.74, 4.77, and now 4.8? Talk about hanging on with your fingernails. They tried and tried and tried to get it right. Even while new and much improved versions and spin-offs of Netscape came on the scene, old #4 just kept chugging along. For those who might not be keeping track, the official Netscape as of today is version 7.1, and many prefer what I just called the spin-offs — Mozilla and Firebird. And still you'll find Netscape 4 showing up in the user logs. It seems to be down to about 1% of users, but that's going to depend on which browser stats you check. It'll vary from site to site.

Let's be clear about this. Netscape 4 was introduced in 1997. It is very much a last century browser, a browser from the early years of the Internet. Netscape 4 is buggy and outdated. Its support of CSS is limited, to say the very least. But because it continued to be the default browser for an ever smaller, but still significant, percentage of users, designers have continued to bend over backwards to create sites that would appear mostly the same in Netscape 4 as they did in other browsers. It's not that the designers couldn't use CSS — it's just that they had to be very careful what parts of CSS to use. Some styles worked, some didn't, some did strange and unpleasant things to the display, and some simply caused the browser to crash. Oops. Also, unlike every other browser, Netscape 4 uses JavaScript to interpret and apply CSS, which means that if JavaScript is turned off, the styles don't work. At all.

That's all right, though. Don't worry about it. Now, finally, Netscape 4 is almost gone. It's down to about 1% and dwindling. Every day new sites (and redesigns of old sites) are developed using web standards and stylesheets to take advantage of the capabilities of the more modern browsers. Oh yes, the content in these sites is still accessible to Netscape 4 and its users, but the content isn't laid out as in modern browsers. That is the price that must be paid — a very small percentage of users gets unstyled content.

But, guess what, folks? The tail still wags the dog. There are still clients who worry about the stragglers, and there are still lots of designers continuing to develop sites with Netscape 4 in mind. Old habits die hard and for some designers it's hard to let go of the old ways because... well, sometimes it's just because it's so darned hard to learn the new ways — like developing to standards, letting go of the 1-pixel spacer GIF, and using stylesheets for layout.

Change can be hard but this is the Internet and it's all about change. If you're developing or redesigning a site now, in most cases you'll want it to last long enough to be worth the effort. How long is that? One year? Two years? Is the site you're developing now going to be handicapped as soon as it goes public? Is it going to be easy to maintain and update? Is it accessible? Will it be easy to adapt to the demands of new displays such as PDAs and cellphones? If your new site is held back by the constraints of Netscape 4, the answers to all those questions will cost you.

Related article: Streamlining with Stylesheets — about the many advantages of using CSS for the layout of a Web page.

See more on point articles in the archive.

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