A Browser is a Browser is a Browser

For a <rant> on how we got here (plus some fun with HTML), see this month’s “From the Editor’s Desk

Back in the early days, the World Wide Web was a specialized place, and a browser was a separate (free) install. And you didn’t need two, ’cause the Internet they displayed looked the same no matter which — just select the one that did what you wanted it to. Now there are several choices, some of them made for you. Macs/iOS devices include the browser Safari, Windows has IE (soon to be replaced, code name “Spartan”), and Chromebooks have Chrome (actually, an expanded version of the Chrome browser is the computer operating system!). Most computers these days will accept installs of other browsers. Chrome and Firefox are the two most popular, with Opera a distant third.

Why should you care? Because of reasons I explore in this month’s “From the Editor’s Desk,” websites often leverage abilities present in one browser, but less supported in another. To look at your browser options, I’m going to split my observations along platform lines below, with a recommendation for each.

Chromebook

ChromeYou’re stuck. As I mentioned above, since Chrome is actually the operating system of a Chromebook, you’re stuck with Chrome as a browser. The good news is, Chrome is a pretty good browser, so you haven’t lost a lot. (Here in Fayette Co., Chrome will cause you to mostly lose the Microsoft-specific stuff below, but most folks aren’t using Chromebooks as a teacher workstation anyway, so no biggie.)

Mac

FirefoxUse Firefox. Interestingly, Mac’s built-in browser, Safari, is perhaps one of the less popular browsers out there, despite Apple’s overall good reputation. Most knowledgeable Mac users will advise you to install Firefox, and use it exclusively. (Interestingly, there was a brief window where Microsoft’s IE was actually the bundled browser for Macs, but development of a Mac version of IE stopped 12 years ago.)

PC (Windows)

IEUse IE and Firefox. The default browser, Internet Explorer, is pretty robust, but it has shown some cracks in its armor as of late. Criticisms include the fact that it runs slow, and slants towards sites delivered using Microsoft’s own development tools. But even more important, CIITS and Infinite Campus (IC) both tend to run better in Firefox (for a while, IC only ran in it). Chrome is also possible (I use it a lot), but the tech office has complaints about changes after Chrome installs, so they generally advise against it.

Windows is the one platform for which I recommend you use two browsers. That’s Spartanbecause we are, in fact (like it or not), a Microsoft house. SharePoint and other web-delivered tools to which we have regular access will deliver their full capabilities only to IE. (When “Spartan” is released, there may be an update to this information!)

Personal Devices (smart phones, tablets)

Use what’s there. Yes, there are versions of Firefox and Opera developed for your iPhone, iPad, or Android phone/tablet, and they’re free through those platforms’ app stores. But the reasons for using alternate browsers tend to disappear on a personal device, since…

  • Personal devices are less likely to be friendly to competing browsers – they’re more complicated to set up, and sharing the results between multiple browsers is difficult.
  • Personal device use patterns are different:
    • We don’t generally use them for complex tasks that require a full, computer-based browser, and…
    • For some such tasks, we tend to leverage apps (IC has one), which work completely outside the world of browsers.

Installing a browser other than the bundled one.

Most teacher workstations have Firefox installed already, but if not, you should contact your STC and get it installed. Two caveats:

  • Do not select the default install settings. Firefox and Chrome will both change things without your knowledge. But, more important, both will attempt to install add-ons to your Safari or IE which you don’t want. It’s just a check-box you need to un-check, but you need to be watching!
  • Be aware of your “default browser.” Macs and PC’s will allow you to select which browser you want to use automatically. You’ll be asked this when you install a new one, or sometimes when you start a non-default browser.
    • Macs: set it to Firefox.
    • PCs: set to whichever you want, but be aware that clicking a link will always open that browser, even if you need to access the site through the other. If you have a shortcut on your desktop which goes to a site, you can set that shortcut in such a way that it calls the correct browser for that work. Talk to your STC about getting that done.

Yes, this is another technical detail you now have to track. If we were confident that the Internet will, one day, return to an “open specification,” we could go back to not caring which browser we used (or we’d select them for features rather than capabilities, like we used to). Until then (as in never!), this is the world we live in.

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