Backwards Compatibility vs. Upgrading

The increased interest for accessibility among the bloggers community has brought on several debates on individual parts of the “problem”. One of these debates concerns backwards compatibility. You will meet people who strongly condone backwards compatibility, so as to cater to the needs of visitors with older computers and browsers. You will also, however, meet people who claim that it’s people’s job to upgrade their programs when new versions are available.

Where do I stand in this debate? I must say that, to a certain extent, I agree with both sides.

What Is Backwards Compatibility?

Backwards compatibility is, in this case, when a website owner makes sure that his/her website is accessible to people with older systems (older browsers, older operating systems, etc.), and not only to the latest versions. This means that, while you can still use “new methods”, you must always provide methods for these users to be able to access the entirety of your content.

Why Insure Backwards Compatibility?

On one hand, let’s take a look at backwards compatibility. Around the world, there are millions of internet users and they all are in a nearly unique situation. Their connection speed, their browser itself, the version of said browsers, the plug-ins they use, the context in which they browse, all of these will vary from one user to another. I personally am among the lucky ones. While my computer is not at the top of current technology, it is a rather good computer. I have the latest version of Firefox and it runs without crashing.

Not everyone, however, is that lucky. If I were in school or working for some corporation, I would not necessarily be allowed to install the programs of my choice. I might even have to use an older version of Internet Explorer, for example 6, rather than 7. No matter the amount of website owners who would tell me “Too bad for you if you can’t see my site, you just have to upgrade!”, I couldn’t.

I could also be browsing on a very old computer that would explode if I were to install any new program. I could be on an extremely slow connection and running out of bandwidth at the end of the month, so I couldn’t update my browser.

I could also be someone who knows practically nothing of computers and doesn’t quite get what this upgrading thing is all about.

You can’t just assume that your visitors are going to own high-quality computers.

Why Upgrade?

On the other hand, however, upgrading is, I believe, a very good habit to take, above all if you are a common internet user. Older browsers tend to have unfixed security issues and bugs which the developers no longer care about after a new version has been released. If you don’t upgrade, you are opening your computers to issues that could easily be fixed by clicking a few links and/or buttons.

The same goes for scripts used on your website. You might think it’s going to be too long to do to justify doing it, but, trust me, it is truly worth it in the end. Spending a couple of minutes upgrading is much more fun than spending hours re-uploading your entire website because you have lost months of data.

So, Must I Insure Backwards Compatibility or Let Users Upgrade?

In brief, what can you do as a website owner? I believe the best is to come to a compromise and, for that, statistics can be helpful. In the past couple of years, the amount of people who use an 800×600 resolution has decreased considerably, but there are still over 10% of web users who have this resolution.1 It is a rather large amount of people and it cannot be neglected! You will however notice that users with a resolution of 640×480 are now practically inexistent (they were already only at 2% in October 2002!). It is important that you make sure your website is visible in 800×600. It does not have to be perfect, but people should at least be able to read and navigate. As for 640×480, you can forget it.

As for browser statistics, the same page gives nearly identical percentages for IE6 (36.9%) and Mozilla Firefox (34.5%) in July 2007, and both are superior to IE7 (20.1%)! It is therefore ridiculous for you to ignore IE6 users if you are a strong advocate of Firefox!

I consider that the average personal website (I include any form of personal project, such as fansites or message boards in that category) should be visible in resolutions from 800×600 and above and should be accessible to IE5 and above (or at least IE6) and Mozilla Firefox. In terms of operating systems, Mac, Windows XP/Vista/2000 and Linux users should be able to view it. Note however that the result of a certain website in an operating system is largely influenced by its browser, so testing in multiple browsers is an important key to success.

1 W3 Schools: Browsers Display statistics. Data from January 2007. It may not be applicable to your website, but it gives a relatively good reflection of resolution usage across the web.


1 Comment »

  1. Kaylee Said:

    I agree with you; some people are unable to upgrade – but if they can, then they probably should.

    I think it’s quite useful to look at your own stats – there was just a thread on Snark today about the browsers visitors use, and the great majority in our “group” was Firefox.

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