How Safari became the number one browser at St Andrews

Last week I logged into Google Analytics to take a look at browser statistics for the University website. I was surprised to discover that Safari is now the most popular browser among visitors to the University website.

In January 2012, 29.5% of all visits to the University website were made using Safari. This compares to 26.5% for Internet Explorer. Chrome has 21.4% and Firefox has 20.1%.

It is an unusual finding. Take Wikimedia’s statistics, which show 29.5% of traffic coming from IE users, and only 6.1% coming from Safari users.

Here at St Andrews, Safari was also the most popular browser in December 2011. But it hasn’t always been this way. So I decided to take a look through the previous months to figure out the trends.

Browser trends since September 2010

Browser statistics

I looked as far back as September 2010, the last month when Safari was still only the third most popular browser among our visitors. At that time, as you would probably expect, Internet Explorer had a healthy lead in front of the other browsers — 41.4%. Firefox had 24.4%, Safari had 22.1% and Chrome had 10.5%.

Since then, the big four browsers have converged, so that they each now account for 20-odd percent of visits.

There has been a strong decline in IE usage. Firefox usage has also decreased, although it now appears to be making a small resurgence. But, while Firefox was once the clear favourite among non-IE users, today it is only the fourth most popular browser.

Chrome has experienced massive growth. It has now overtaken Firefox and shows no sign of stopping.

Safari has experienced a steady increase over this period. Chrome is growing more quickly, but it began from a lower point.

Is Safari so popular anywhere else?

Last week I tweeted about the fact that Safari is the most popular browser among our visitors.

There were some interesting responses.

 

So I took a look at the operating systems used by the University website’s visitors.

In January 2012, 33.1% of visitors were using a Mac. I would guess this would be much higher than most other websites. For instance, Wikimedia estimates that only 8.6% of its visitors are using a Mac.

Usage of Macs among our visitors has grown from 26.0% in September 2010. This clearly contributes a great deal towards the popularity of Safari, which is further bolstered by the growth of iOS devices.

Quite what explains why we have so many Mac users at St Andrews is another question! Perhaps you can come up with some theories.

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My favourite Web developer add-ons for Firefox

Mozilla released Firefox 4.0 on Tuesday—it has already been downloaded 16,041,437 times; that’s about 92 downloads a second!— and there is a lot to commend it for: a clean look, that’s not too far away from both Google Chrome and Internet Explorer 9 and it’s much faster too.

While I use Google Chrome for most of my day-to-day browsing I still use Firefox for Web development, largely thanks to the number of mature add-ons available for it. These are my favourites:

1. Firebug

20110324-firefox4-firebug

Firebug is the number one reason that I use Firefox. Sure, Chrome and Internet Explorer have their own Web developer tools but none of them come close to Firebug for its awesomeness.

That said, I recently tried out Opera Dragonfly and I was really impressed.

2. Web Developer

20110324-firefox4-webdeveloper

A close second is Chris Penderick’s Web Developer toolbar that adds all sorts of useful tools to Firefox: disable CSS, outline headings and tables on the page, show HTML classes and IDs, show image sizes as overlays on the images. Brilliant!

3. ColorZilla

20110324-firefox4-colorzilla

The most useful feature of ColorZilla for me is the eyedropper tool that allows me to sample a colour on a Web page and find out the RGB or HEX value for it.

4. HTML Validator

20110324-firefox4-htmlvalidator

HTML Validator does exactly what it suggests that it does: it shows HTML validation information in the Firefox add-on bar (what used to be the status bar) at the foot of the browser viewport.

It’s very useful for at-a-glance error checking; obviously, recognising that HTML validation is an ideal and a guide rather than a hard-and-fast rule.

5. Wappalyzer

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Wappalyzer is a new add-on for me that adds to Firefox the functionality that I’ve been enjoying with the Chrome Sniffer extension in Google Chrome.

It shows you in the AwesomeBar what technologies are being used, e.g. JavaScript framework, server type, content management system, web statistics, etc.

6. RSS Icon in Awesombar

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For some unfathomable reason Mozilla has removed the RSS icon that appears in the AwesomeBar when you visit a page that has an RSS autodiscovery tag, such as the University homepage.

That’s where RSS Icon in Awesombar (sic) comes in. It… well, puts an RSS icon in the AwesomeBar.

7. Tab Mix Plus

20110324-firefox4-tabmixplus

There are some options within Firefox that I still cannot believe are missing. There is still no way to, by default, open your homepage when you open a new tab.

Tab Mix Plus allows you to set this option—and a whole lot more, like being able to duplicate existing tabs, or protect or lock tabs so that you don’t accidentally close them.

Over to you…

What are your favourite Firefox add-ons, for Web development or otherwise?

Saying goodbye to Internet Explorer 6

Today, Microsoft launched a big push aimed at “Moving the world off Internet Explorer 6”. IE6 Countdown aims to educate people about why they need to upgrade their browsers. The target is for IE6 to account for less than 1% of global share.

Web developers have long bemoaned the amount of work it takes to make modern-day websites work properly in IE6. It is a 10 year old browser — almost half as old as the web itself — but it is only in the past year or two that many web developers have begun to feel that it is reasonable to drop support for IE6.

Even so, even to have a website that does not work well for 1% of visitors may be deemed to be unacceptably high. While it is unreasonable to expect a website to work on a stone tablet as well as it does on an Apple iPad, if enough people are using certain software to surf the web — no matter how old it is — we need to make sure it works.

Worldwide usage of IE6

Internet Explorer 6 usage around the world In February 2011, 3.5% of UK users were using Internet Explorer 6. Worldwide, 12% of users still use this decade-old browser. Most staggeringly of all, over a third of web users in China are still using IE6.

It looks like Nordic sufers are particularly savvy. Norway and Finland are the only two countries coloured green on Microsoft’s map, signalling that they have gone below the target of 1%.

St Andrews poised to go green

I have just checked the statistics for visits to the University of St Andrews website, and the percentage of IE6 users stands at 1.01%. This is a tiny smidge above Microsoft’s target of 1%. While the UK is still painted blue on Microsoft’s map, it looks like the University of St Andrews will go green soon!

Although most pages on the University website should work adequately on IE6, we have begun to stop supporting IE6 for some of the fancier, newer designs. There comes a point where supporting IE6 just becomes a waste of time — time that we really don’t have.

Why upgrade?

IE6 was a revolutionary browser for its time. But that was ten years ago, which is an absolute eternity in terms of the web. Not only are IE6 users unable to visit many websites as the designers intended, the continued prevalence of this ancient browser is discouraging developers from innovating more — making all web users worse off. Using a 10 year old web browser is also seen as a security risk.

Microsoft have been criticised for being too slow to update their browser. It was five years until Internet Explorer 7 came out. In comparison, Mozilla are poised to release Firefox 4, two and a half years after Firefox 3 was launched. Google Chrome has reached version 10 just over two years after the first ever version.

Now even Microsoft finds the continued prevalence of IE6 to be an embarrassment. Today, Microsoft are playing catch-up with other browser vendors, but have made great leaps to improve their browser in recent years.

As such, we fully support all initiatives to encourage users to upgrade from IE6. If you still use IE6, please upgrade to the latest version of Internet Explorer.

Better still, you could opt to switch to a different browser altogether. The future version of Internet Explorer — IE9 — is a vast improvement, but is still not perfect. Only today, I worked on some new code that works perfectly in every other major browser, but does not work in IE9 due to its relatively poor support of CSS3.

If you have held off before, I can promise you that switching browsers it is rather pain-free. You will probably end up being much happier with your browsing experiences.

I suggest you consider the following browsers:

PDF problems? Check your filenames

We have been contacted a couple of times recently by content maintainers who were concerned that some users of the website were unable to open PDF files. Our users have particularly been having problems opening some PDFs in Firefox, while I have also known of Google Chrome being affected. Internet Explorer has been fine (for once!).

These odd problems have only been cropping up recently, and not just on the University website. I have heard reports from other people who have been having difficulties opening PDFs in Firefox and Chrome in general. Strangely, despite hearing numerous reports “in real life”, I have seen little chat about this on the web. So I am not entirely sure what is going on. But here is what I think has happened.

What might be causing the problem?

Both of the times I have been asked to investigate this issue, the same thing appeared to be causing it. I noticed that the PDFs in question had filenames that were not web-friendly. They were something like Example File Name.pdf.

A filename that contains capital letters, special characters or spaces is quite common, and is normally adequate if you just want to open your file from your desktop. But they are unsuitable in a web environment. URLs are not designed to contain spaces. But if you upload your PDF with a filename that contains spaces, this is what will be created. This is also what causes the dreaded “%20” ugliness that we are often asked about.

For instance, if I was to upload my hypothetical document with the filename Example File Name.pdf, its URL on the web would be http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/media/Example%20File%20Name.pdf. This is not ideal.

Normally the software we use is smart enough to work around it. But it seems (and this is just a guess on my part because I have been unable to find any firm information) that a recent update to the Adobe Reader software (perhaps the release of Adobe Reader X) has caused a few bugs in the way certain browsers handle PDFs.

How to avoid these problems — name your files correctly

Both times I have remedied the issue by downloading all of the PDFs onto my computer, renaming the files so that they had web-friendly filenames, then re-uploading them. It seems that the best way of ensuring that your PDFs will open in all browsers is to give them a web-friendly filename in the first place. As a nice bonus, they will end up having nicer URLs as well!

If you are preparing a document to be uploaded to the website, please ensure that you have a web-friendly filename before uploading it. Avoid using any special characters, capital letters or spaces.

Do ensure that your filename is all lowercase and replace any spaces with hypens.

So if you have a file that’s called Example File Name.pdf that you want to upload to the web, create a copy and name it example-file-name.pdf. Upload this new version of the file. That way, you can help prevent users having problems viewing your documents.

This advice also applies to any sort of file you are uploading, including Word documents and  images.

What browsers have our visitors been using this year?

Browsers used to visit the University website during 2010

The topic of which Web browsers are the most popular came up at our weekly Web team meeting this morning.  So I went away and did a little digging in our Google Analytics account.  (Bear in mind that I have no degree of expertise in statistics.)

The issue was raised because we’re currently debugging an issue in Google Chrome, and someone wondered out-loud whether it was really worth trying to fix in such a minor browser if it worked fine in IE, Safari, Firefox and Opera.  The statistics showed that Google Chrome really isn’t that minor a browser now with a share of 11.98% of all visits.

Google Analytics

Looking at the last 12 months (from 01 January – yesterday) I was surprised to see that in September Safari overtook Firefox as the second most used browser after Internet Explorer.

It makes sense that Internet Explorer and Safari, which are the default browsers in Windows and MacOS X respectively, should be first and second, but I don’t really understand immediately why Safari should overtake Firefox in September, even taking into account the new student intake which I would have assumed were also included in the January–June figures?

The Safari figures also include handheld Apple devices, such as iPhone, iPod and iPad, but overall those platforms together only make up 0.8% of the total annual figure.

As a general indication of trend, comparing the January figures to those for December so far, it’s interesting to note that both usage figures for IE and Firefox dropped while Safari, Chrome and Opera grew, with Chrome growing the most.

Chrome UP 5.58%
Safari UP 3.66%
Opera UP 0.13%
Firefox DOWN 4.76%
Internet Explorer DOWN 4.83%

Other browsers

This graph and table, of course, only mention “The Big Five”.  There are other browsers out there.

The statistics for 2010 to date show that 185 different browsers have been used to access the University website.  Most of the other browsers (not those listed above) are for mobile devices, .e.g.

  • BlackBerry
  • HTC HD2
  • HTC Touch
  • HTC TyTN
  • LG
  • Samsung
  • Opera Mini
  • Palm
  • Playstation 3
  • Playstation Portable
  • Xda Ignito

Interesting to see games consoles (Playstation 3 and Playstation Portable) appearing on the list. Over the past 12 months the University website has been visited 451 times using a Playstation 3.  Not quite enough to warrant commissioning a St Andrews level on Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty.

Broken down by OS

Breaking the browsers down by operating system, across the entire year (01 January–12 December) here are the top 10 browsers by operating system

1 Internet Explorer Windows 43.6%
2 Firefox Windows 18.9%
3 Safari Mac 18.85%
4 Chrome Windows 8.7%
5 Firefox Mac 4.88%
6 Safari Windows 0.93%
7 Chrome Mac 0.91%
8 Firefox Linux 0.65%
9 Opera Windows 0.61%
10 Safari iPhone 0.55%

It will be interesting to see how that moves over the next 12 months and whether things have changed dramatically this time next year.

Should we still be supporting Internet Explorer 6?

Keep calm and debug IE6

Keep calm and debug IE6

Every couple of months the same topic of conversation comes up in the Web team office: should we still be supporting Internet Explorer 6? The answer so far has always been a resigned yes, but that may not be the case for too long.

A little history: IE6 was released on 27 August 2001, three days after Windows XP was released.  Since then IE7 was released in October 2006, IE8 in March 2009 and IE9 public beta in September 2010.  So, surely it’s now time to withdraw support for a browser that is over nine years old.

Bring down IE6

In 2009 .net magazine started a campaign called “Bring down IE6“.

Bring down IE6

Their mission:

The premise is simple: Internet Explorer 6 is antiquated, doesn’t support key web standards, and should be phased out. This isn’t about being anti-Microsoft, it’s about making sure that we encourage people to move to modern browsers such as IE8, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera.

Case-by-case

In an article entitled “Calling time on IE6” Craig Grannell “asks designers and developers if it’s finally time to take IE6 behind the shed and shoot it”!  He leaves the conclusion of the article to Web standards hero Jeffrey Zeldman:

How much longer we prop up this ageing browser must be decided on a case-by-case basis. Not every site can afford to dump it today, but the writing’s on the wall.

I think that’s a really important point because until recently the primary browser on the University’s default PC setup, that was installed on every Windows PC in the PC classrooms, was Internet Explorer 6.  If we wanted our websites to be viewable and usable across the University then we had to support it, we had no option.

Supporting IE6 is a drag. As all web developers will know, you spend a couple of hours building something that works perfectly in Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Safari and then you spend twice as long again debugging it in IE6 and IE7 and IE8, which all appear to have introduced new bugs to the game.  Keep calm and debug IE!

Analytics

Since the University’s default PC setup (‘standard build’) has now moved to Windows XP (and will hopefully soon move again to Windows 7) the default browser is now IE8, and s the requirement to support IE6 has now been reduced.

This is backed up by the statistics from our Google Analytics account that tracks which pages are being view most often and by which browsers.

Unsurprisingly Internet Explorer, being the default browser on our standard build PC, is the most popular browser to use to visit the University website; Apple Safari (the default browser on Apple Macs) is second.  42.5% of all visitors in the last month have used one version or another of Internet Explorer.  The breakdown of which version is interesting:

  1. IE8: 79.8% (382,394 visits)
  2. IE7: 15.4% (73,944 visits)
  3. IE6: 4.4% (21,186 visits)
  4. IE9 beta: 0.29% (1,395 visits)

That means that only 1.8% of all visitors to the University website last month used IE6. But 21,186 visits is still quite a lot.

Frameworks

Adopting the Blueprint CSS framework a few years back made a considerable difference to our development time.  Blueprint comes with a build-in IE hacks/workarounds stylesheet that addresses a good number of common IE5, IE6 and IE7 issues that has literally saved us hours and hours of hair-pulling.

Similarly we’re using the jQuery JavaScript framework which still supports IE6 and so makes cross-browser coding much simpler.

My view is that with such good support built-in to these frameworks for IE6 there’s really no excuse at the moment to completely drop providing a certain degree of support for IE6. The bugs are well known and the hacks are well-documented, and so finding workarounds for those that are not already contained in the framework files really doesn’t take that long to code these days.

Yahoo! graded browser support

However, it doesn’t mean that pages need to look pixel-for-pixel identical in every browser.  Something that is made explicit in the Yahoo! Graded Browser Support chart:

Support does not mean that everybody gets the same thing. Expecting two users using different browser software to have an identical experience fails to embrace or acknowledge the heterogeneous essence of the Web. In fact, requiring the same experience for all users creates an artificial barrier to participation. Availability and accessibility of content should be our key priority.

Over the last two to three years I’ve used the Yahoo! GBS chart to inform the Web team about how much support we should be affording to the various browsers.  IE6 is still granted A-grade support but it appears from a blog post “Graded Browser Support Update: Q4 2010” on the Yahoo! User Interface Blog that this is all about to change.

Listed among the various changes, which includes dropping A-grade support for Firefox 3.0 and initiating support for WebKit browsers on iOS and Android OS, is this:

Forecast discontinuation of A-grade coverage for Internet Explorer 6 in Q1 2011; we expect to move IE6 to the C-grade browser list as of the next update.

C-grade browsers, according to the GBS page are “identified, incapable, antiquated and rare.”

I would say that the bell is tolling for IE6 but it would appear from some corners of the Web that it has already rung out.  Google has already held a Funeral for IE6 after it withdrew support for the aged browser.  Microsoft sent flowers!

Conclusion

According to Google IE6 is already dead and buried, while Yahoo! are expected to degrade support for it in early 2011. Microsoft themselves, on the other hand, have committed to supporting IE6 until Windows XP SP3 support is removed in 2014; but that just means removing security issues rather than adding new features.  IE6 will never, on its own, support HTML5 or CSS3, for example.

So, should we still be supporting Internet Explorer 6? I expect that we’ll follow Yahoo!’s lead next year and move to providing only a base level of support for it.  When we move to using HTML5 and CSS3 then I expect we’ll have to drop support for IE6 completely.

We’ll make sure that content is readable but not worry too much about the presentation (CSS) and behaviour (JavaScript) layers; we’re already kind of doing that already in places, to be honest.  But as we’re using frameworks for CSS and JavaScript which still support IE6 the elderly blue ‘e’ may be inadvertently supported for a little while to come.

Then all we need to do is try to kill off IE7.  Who’s with me?