All in the <head>

– Ponderings & code by Drew McLellan –

– Live from The Internets since 2003 –


Developing Web apps for IE Only

25 November 2004

In his article The top 20 IT mistakes to avoid (hat tip: Harry Fuecks) columnist Chad Dickerson goes further than putting forward a business case for developing cross-browser web applications, he actually lists developing web apps for IE only as the eleventh biggest IT mistake.

Many enterprises may not be able to avoid using IE. But if you make sure your key Web applications don’t depend on IE-only functionality, you’ll have an easier time switching to an alternative, such as Mozilla Firefox, if ongoing IE security holes become too burdensome and risky for your IT environment.

Dickerson’s point is simple – as tempting as it may seem, it’s a bad business decision to arbitrarily tie your web app to any one browser. This is compounded when a browser has a proven track record of problems. If your app isn’t tied to one browser then you can happily ditch the browser you were using across your organisation and switch to another.

Whether he’d recognise it by name or not, Dickerson is recommending Web Standards. It’s exactly the same message we’ve been preaching at the WaSP for years, and it’s no coincidence that the basic business case never goes away.

Use web standards. It’ll save your arse.

- Drew McLellan


  1. § Peter Mount: This sounds great and I’m going to have to quote this to people who don’t undestand why Internet Explorer might pose some problems.

    I tried to introduce the Ministry Team at my church to Mozilla Firefox but the Head Minister later told me that they would only use Internet Explorer because they wanted everybody to use the same software. I tried to remind him what I’d said about people’s credit card numbers potentially being stolen by hackers if they used Internet Explorer but he just “replied” with a confused look in his face.

    Or maybe I just have a problem with dealing with “committees”. I try to give them advice but somehow it gets lost in their meetings and nothing gets done (same old story).

    It’d be great if I found a workshop that deals with how to make committees and other groups of people actually listen to what’s being said to them.

    Have fun

    Peter Mount
  2. § Stuart Langridge: A good idea. I entirely agree with it. However, there are two sorts of web applications used in companies: those developed in-house, and those purchased in from outside. The second sort are more and more prevalent, now that every bit of bought software has a web front-end. All our in-house developed applications are cross-browser (because I run the dev team, heh). So, I thought, the time is ripe for us to move to Firefox across the organisation.
    Not a chance.
    Every single web front end to every bought application is IE specific. Not just little things like using document.all, which we could fix with a few tweaks, but everything. The applications just will not work in Firefox without heavy tweaking. IE-specific HTML, specific CSS, specific JavaScript, specific DOM stuff…it’s all, in theory, workaroundable, and that’s what prompted my past musings on making Firefox emulate IE through an extension and what would need to be in that extension —but it would be serious, epic work. And once again, despite how the point of the web is to be cross-platform, we find ourselves bound in. People making commercial web apps just do not care about cross-browser; they develop for IE. The battle for web standards is beginning, slowly, to take effect on the web. In the firld of intranets and applications for internal use it’s barely even got a foothold, and I’d love to know a way to fix that, because it’s going to stand in the way of corporate adoption of Firefox.
  3. § Richard@Home: One of the primary reasons for creating web application over a traditional desktop application is you aren’t tied to a particular platform.

    It seems like madness to me to throw away that openness and flexibility by writing browser specific applications.

    From a web application platform perspective, IE offers nothing over the other modern browsers so there really is no need to use its ‘special features’ (I’m struggling to think of even one).
  4. § Lach: Stuart, surely the means of removing the problem of IE-only development is competition? Let’s say that Firefox picks up, I dunno, 18% usage by the end of next year. That’s enough to make people notice, especially since it’d be growing quickly. I imagine whoever could bring their app forward as compatible with Firefox (or better yet cross-browser) would enjoy a competitive advantage over the idiots who don’t?

    The problem is finding key decision makers and persuading them that it’s worth the time put in. But especially with IE being tied to Windows versions in future, and growing interest in Linux, I don’t see a bright future ahead of a company which continues to build IE-centric garbage.
  5. § Jason Stirk: I agree entirely – there’s nothing more irritating than web applications that rely on any single technology, be it IE, Flash, or even Mozilla. (Incidentally, I recently had major issues with my new DSL router which I was unable to configure except from IE.)

    The danger is, of course, that things can swing the other way. Sure, you shouldn’t write IE specific code, but you also need to make sure you don’t end up with a site that only works in Firefox. Thankfully, most of the people “smart” enough (-1 Troll) to be building sites that aren’t IE dependant are usually “smart” enough to realise it swings both ways. We aren’t seeing sites made entirely in XUL, but give the unwashed masses some time…

    Thankfully the push is for standards, not “omfg Firefox is awesome IE is evil kthx”.
  6. § Dave Marks: I stopped developing in IE a long time ago, and my life has been soooo much easier. I now try and persuade anybody i talk to who hasn’t already done so, to move to firefoxa and to use it for development.

    Peter – oh boy committees! I starting working for my second one a few months ago and its been hard work. Well actually everybody in the committe is behind me except for one guy, and that one guy brings down the whole process… its a real shame!
  7. § Peter Mount: Dave

    You might want to look at IEDocMon, it’s a DOM Inspector addin for Internet Explorer. I know you said you changed to Firefox for development but you might find this handy. One site that has it is at:

    In my own humble way I’ve been trying to make sure things work in at least 3 browsers, i.e. Internet Explorer, Opera and Mozilla Firefox. As much as I’d prefer to do everything in Firefox it’s just a fact of life that you have to test in Internet Explorer as well.

    As for committees, to quote Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks, “Can’t we all just get along”? (i.e. just before the Martians killed him and planted a Martian flag up where the sun don’t shine).

    Have fun.
  8. § Dave Marks: Peter

    Although I say I only develop in FireFox, I do ofcourse double check sites in IE. Once everything is done (or at specific milestones during the build) I check sites in Opera, Netscape, IE5/5.5 and Mozilla aswell. IE5/5.5 normally has its own special slot just for fixing any box model problems etc
  9. § Drew McLellan: This is what concerns me about all the attention Firefox is getting. Let’s not lose sight of the over-all goal of compliance to recognised standards.

    That is to say, Firefox is not a standard. Code to the specs and Firefox will play along. Code for Firefox and that’s no better than coding specifically for IE.
  10. § Peter Mount: Dave

    Your doing better than me. The only version of Internet Explorer I check in is the latest version. I’ll have to follow your lead and check stuff in IE5/5.5 as well.

    Did you look at IEDocMon? I’m interested to see what other people think of it.

    Have fun
  11. § Bradford Chang: First off, I definitely agree with this post; limiting accessibility to one browser is undesirable. In response to Richard@Home’s statement that IE offers nothing over modern browsers…. while it may be true in most cases, there are specific situations in which it is EASIER to develop in IE because of ActiveX, which allows a developer to use code he has already written for a Win32 application on the website with almost no conversion. That is why programmers like IE. It sucks, but it’s definitely a factor.
  12. § Dustin Diaz: You know, it bothers me that even the company I work for depends on a wysiwyg editor that takes advantage of IE’s active-X controls. It’s a good thing they that moz extension IE View.

    On another note, I think it’s still a good idea to code for IE, just not IE only :)

    If it were my own app that only I’d be using or a client that I personally know uses mozilla, I’d make it a “Mozilla only” CMS. It’s about time IE users know what it’s like to not have something work in their browser
  13. § Jon Berg: Firefox is comming out like a fox on fire. I’m using it and it is great. It is just a moment before the whole world is using it. IE won the first battle in 2000 when they kicked Netscapes ass. But I think Firefox is going to win the last battle and have the final laugh.
  14. § Aankhen: “But I think Firefox is going to win the last battle and have the final laugh.”—Jon Berg

    Actually, blasphemous (sp?) as it may sound, I hope Firefox doesn’t win the final battle. The reason is that I hope there’s a constant battle to have the best browser possible, and thus keep innovating. Having a single winner and no innovation (as a result) is no fun.
  15. § Dysfunksional.Monkey: ”[...]I hope there’s a constant battle to have the best browser possible, and thus keep innovating. Having a single winner and no innovation (as a result) is no fun.” — Aankhen

    Actually, the innovation is probably best left to those who write the standards. Otherwise we’d be back to the way we were when IE and Netscape both had elements the other browser didn’t support (<multicol> anyone? <layer>?).

    I’m just hoping that MS notice the rise in firefox is being helped because of its compliance, and decides that IE needs to be comlpiant too.
  16. § Lach: And what about groups such as WhatWG, spawned specifically by the faults of the W3C? The W3C have produced some nice work over the years, but they’ve produced some drivel too. more importantly, there is more than one smart idea they haven’t though of. Being produced by the W3C is not a holy writ proving the undoubtable virtue of the standard.

    Don’t get me wrong. Standards complicance is important. But so is innovation. As long as innovation doesn’t get in the way of standards adherence, and as long as browser specific extensions are clearly marked so, then what’s the problem with it?
  17. § Dustin Diaz: On the browser comments.
    I think what we all wish for is just for microsoft to come out with IE7 and that it roughly simulate something like Firefox. The reason why standards evangelists push firefox is because FF is the most up to date on implementing them. Remember how mad you used to get when you’d look at your site in IE 4.0 and it looked awesome, but then you’d open up netscape 3.0 and it sucked?

    I bet standards evangelists back then (if they existed) were pushing common folk to download IE 4 because they had the most up to date browser that followed the W3’s specs (from what they were at the time).

    Any how, that was during a time when browsers were almost constantly coming out with newer versions and the turnover rate was much quicker than it is now – as so it seems.

    The word “evangelism” probably wasn’t used back then because there was nothing to evangelize to. I guess you could say that new religions were constantly popping up so it would seem kind of rediculous to evangelize folks to use a browser, and then you yourself switch to another just a few months later.

    What if in IE7 microsoft decides to implement CSS 4 (this is totally hypothetical – especially since the W3C isn’t even completely finished drafting CSS3 recs), and Mozilla is still admists trying to fully implement CSS3? We’d then be telling people to switch to IE7.

    With all that said…it’s all very doubtful.

    What needs to happen is all browser makers need to share the same codebase, and any updates to the shared code, browsers would then be required to send out an update to their users. This way we can all use our browser of choice…and that choice would be based on browser experience such as tabbed navigation and bookmark options and what we can do with RSS etc, etc…and the choice should not be based on why some sites look funny in one browser, but normal in another.

    Good discussion :)
  18. § Aankhen: “Actually, the innovation is probably best left to those who write the standards. Otherwise we’d be back to the way we were when IE and Netscape both had elements the other browser didn’t support (<multicol> anyone? <layer>?).”  —  Dysfunksional.Monkey

    Sorry, I guess I wasn’t clear. I meant innovation in terms of the browsing experience, not in terms of redefining standards. As far as redefining standards goes: been there, done that, didn’t like the T-shirt.
  19. § Andy: You might want to look IE DOMInspector, and edit the live HTML DOM of any web document directly in the IE browser window. Syntax color Highlighting.
  20. § strimble: Lately I’ve been slowly going insane on the subject of web standards. This just seems like another argument for web standards and why IE currently sucks! Am I wrong? Anyone else slowly going insane?


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About Drew McLellan

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Drew McLellan (@drewm) has been hacking on the web since around 1996 following an unfortunate incident with a margarine tub. Since then he’s spread himself between both front- and back-end development projects, and now is Director and Senior Web Developer at in Maidenhead, UK (GEO: 51.5217, -0.7177). Prior to this, Drew was a Web Developer for Yahoo!, and before that primarily worked as a technical lead within design and branding agencies for clients such as Nissan, Goodyear Dunlop, Siemens/Bosch, Cadburys, ICI Dulux and Somewhere along the way, Drew managed to get himself embroiled with Dreamweaver and was made an early Macromedia Evangelist for that product. This lead to book deals, public appearances, fame, glory, and his eventual downfall.

Picking himself up again, Drew is now a strong advocate for best practises, and stood as Group Lead for The Web Standards Project 2006-08. He has had articles published by A List Apart, Adobe, and O’Reilly Media’s, mostly due to mistaken identity. Drew is a proponent of the lower-case semantic web, and is currently expending energies in the direction of the microformats movement, with particular interests in making parsers an off-the-shelf commodity and developing simple UI conventions. He writes here at all in the head and, with a little help from his friends, at 24 ways.