A long time ago, a talented hacker named Bill Gates decided to take control of home computers worldwide and he launched a massive virus called Windows. Bundled with the virus came a web browser labeled Internet Explorer. The browser was very similar to its Windows host in that it was buggy, crippled, imperfect and vulnerable – but therein resided its strength: early release allowed Microsoft to inundate the market with a less-than-perfect product at a rock-bottom price with the promise of updates and improvements that, it turns out, never came. But in those days, IE had an almost-total monopoly and was considered better than nothing.

Sure, there were updates. But they never fixed anything. The browser remained bugged and more importantly, its many subsequent versions never became standard compliant. You see, there are a bunch of very smart and Microsoft-proof people out there who set the standards for web programming languages and protocols. They are the ones who shape up the internet as we know it, by adopting new guidelines and progressively enhancing old ones. They don’t decide of anything, but they are the authority on the subject. When designing a web browser, one would be smart to follow their lead and comply with widely accepted standards. Gates never has.

As a result, even in its current 8th version, Internet Explorer still plain and simply sucks. It remains the least standard-compliant browser out there ff-ieand is every web designer’s nightmare. It forces one to double-code and invent workarounds for many features and visual design aspects that work well with most browsers but still fail on IE.

And so if you are reading this from the lazy comfort of your good old Internet Explorer version.x, I have bad news for you: you are not getting the full effect of this web page, and neither will you on a growing number of other web sites. Many designers, me among them, are stopping once and for all the impossible quest for IE-compatibility and creating web sites that are specifically optimized for better-complying browsers, Firefox obviously being the leading contestant. Much of this has to do with simple eye-candy and won’t necessarily affect the core functions of a page. But in an age where web programming languages have evolved to the point of allowing full application-like interfaces, incredible user interaction and fluid animation, eye-candy is really one of the hottest feature out there.

As a small example, consider this very blog. Every main browser out there, be it Firefox, Chrome or Safari, will render its various boxes and frames with rounded corners, and will apply elegant drop-shadows to picture thumbnails, quotes and comments. In IE however, you’ll see none of the above. All corners (apart from those rendered at the template level with images) are square and drop-shadows invisible. Does that affect your reading of the blog? Probably not. But you are missing something, not seeing the page as I intended it; and somewhere along the line, at an artistic level, a absent drop-shadow becomes as important as period gone missing at the end of a sentence.

So what are your options? a) Stick with Internet Explorer and become a dinosaur, accept or ignore the headache you are causing me and many designers, and slowly fall behind everything so Piecool the web has to offer. b) Get yourself a new browser. It will take minimal getting used to, and then you will be all set. These browsers are free and none of them is force-integrated with an operating system the way IE is.

My recommendation? Get Firefox. I’ve seriously tested Chrome, Safari, Opera, Firefox and IE in their latest versions and Firefox remains my absolute favourite in terms of overall performance, speed, ease of use, security and customization options. The ex aequo second-best would be Chrome and Safari, in terms of standard-compliance. However, Chrome seems to be the new fast-rising kid on the block with the recent announcement by Google of an upcoming open source Chrome OS, a lightweight and mostly web-based operating system initially targeting the laptop market. I can already hear Bill’s teeth grinding…

The pie chart above right represents visitor browser distribution on my site for the last 30 days, as per Google Analytics. As you can see, Firefox is going strong. Of course this isn’t necessarily representative of the internet as a whole because of demographics and subject-specific browsing trends. But it shows the 3 major contenders these days. I believe that a global survey would reveal Firefox slightly ahead of IE, both of them in turn largely ahead of the competition.

Any way. Switch. Jump. Take the plunge. Ditch Internet Explorer. You won’t regret it and I sure will breathe easier next time I add a feature in here!