Choosy Web sites are infuriating and violate policy

"Best viewed with Netscape" and "best viewed with Microsoft Internet
Explorer" are phrases that make me grind my teeth.


In crafting my agency's World Wide Web pages, I turned down Microsoft's developer
goodies because I would have to put that phrase on my pages. I just don't believe it's
right to have to write Web pages that favor one browser over another.


I have fewer gripes-though plenty of opinions-about the Java vs. ActiveX battle.
Organizations are making some top dollar investments in their Web sites and they want the
best performance for their dollars. There are big advantages to using ActiveX for those
committed to Microsoft technology. On the other hand, those who want to keep their options
open will find Netscape just as capable and less vendor-specific.


But I really get steamed when I come to a page that only performs well with one
browser. Or it'll only work with the other browser after I spend 30 minutes downloading
and installing a bunch of plug-ins. Unless you are writing for the XYZ browser fan club, I
see no justification for a public site to cater to a single browser-especially government
sites, where it is policy not to endorse one commercial product over another.


This seems to be particularly a problem with Microsoft Internet Explorer. Microsoft's
ActiveX technology talks to the Microsoft operating system in ways that Netscape and Java
are reluctant to adopt. This technology is exciting and powerful but highly proprietary.
Before using it, carefully consider the long-term costs and benefits of adopting a
vendor-specific solution.


Netscape has plug-ins that will read ActiveX, but they aren't free, nor, I am told, do
they always work correctly. Likewise, Netscape's JavaScript doesn't produce the same
results in Explorer that it does in the Netscape browsers. These giants seem intent on
doing each other in, and the user is the loser.


We can't entirely blame the vendors for this situation. Rapid technological change has
brought many fine tools for and methods of serving the public. But we need to think about
how we respond to innovation.


Those of us who write Web pages and support Web sites have also contributed to the
problems of incompatibility. Microsoft and Netscape are chasing our dollars with their
extensions. If government customers hold the line and require adherence to the Hypertext
Markup Language standards in our large and small procurements, maybe the vendors will pay
more attention to the standards process. But if we chase after every passing gee-whiz
feature irrespective of its impact on the standards, we will have only ourselves to blame
when our sites become unwieldy.


We can try all the neat authoring tricks at home or at a carefully limited work
setting. There we can master and assess the latest technology. But agencies using the Web
to serve a broad customer base ought not burden the public with proprietary enhancements.


So how do we solve this problem?


If the vendors believe they will lose sales and suffer embarrassment, they may act more
responsibly. But they have to know that their customers are serious about supporting the
standards. And serious means clear policies, procurements and practices.


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.


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