Web Browsers all do the same thing, right? How much different can Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Chrome be from each other?

They all just take a bunch of code, spit out a page, and bingo! So what’s all this babble about browser compatibility and capabilities?

Well, the problem is twofold. The first problem is interpretation. Although ideally each browser is presented with the same content and the same rules for reading that content, they still have a bit of wiggle room for deciding what to do about it. That wiggle room is all they need to get two completely different views of the same thing.

OK, that’s no problem – we can get around that by simply watching our steps and writing our code so that we can be sure that different browsers will interpret it in the same way. The real kicker is the second problem: capabilities.

Fair enough, but how can we handle this? There are two major schools of thought: there’s the Charlie Brown way (better known as Graceful Degradation) and the Secret Service way (better known as Progressive Enhancement).

With the Charlie Brown approach we show our users everything we have to offer, the proverbial football is sitting out there for all the world to see. But – here’s the catch – when a user tries to access a feature their fridge doesn’t support, we take the football away and replace it with a nice friendly message (usually in red) along the lines of “I am sorry but your browser does not support this feature!” No football for you dear user! We call this “Graceful Degradation”, since the browser supports fewer and fewer features.

In the Secret Service, we do things differently. When your browser tries to pull a page built in the Secret Service way, we check what browser it is first and *only* show those features that will actually work on that browser. To put it differently, with respect to features, the browser is on a need to know basis and if it can’t use it, it doesn’t need to know.

Alright, so the question is why pick one over the other? What’s the advantage of taking away Charlie’s football (other than it being kinda funny) over handing over your features to the Secret Service?

Well for starters, it’s lot easier for good ol’ Lucy to steal that Football away at the last moment than it is to run the Secret Service. From a logistic point of view, all we have to do is determine where the page *can* fail due to lack of browser support and supply an error message of some kind. With the Secret Service – we have to plan our strategy right from the start – as our site will give a different look and feel on different browsers. The upshot here is that from a cost perspective, Graceful Degradation is cheaper.

Progressive Enhancement has a lot more to offer though, if you’re willing to put the time into it. For the extra cost that you put in to building the site with this methodology in mind, you get a more flexible website design.

In short: Graceful Degradation = low cost solution, but not a lot of flexibility, and not very modern. Progressive Enhancement = higher cost solution, but allows for a modern website that makes sense regardless of what browser is looking at it. Browser compatibility and device capability challenges are a fact of life and choosing an appropriate strategy all comes down to how complex your website needs to be, and how much time/money you’re willing to allocate to the project.

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