Portrait of Edd Dumbill, taken by Giles Turnbull

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Minority report: living in the unsupported 5%

I've been having quite a bit of trouble recently with corporations who simply refuse to support me because I don't run Internet Explorer. And this notwithstanding in either case many years of loyal custom.

HSBC

The first hiccup was with HSBC internet banking. I've been using this service happily on Mozilla and Linux ever since it started, about three years ago. Recently I got an error message that looked as though it warranted further investigation, so I phoned them up. After explaining the error to the first person I spoke to, I got put through to the technical support.

The conversation, which from the HSBC person's side was evidently intended to follow a script, rapidly diverged from anything he was expecting.

Him: "Can you close down IE and restart it."
Me: "I'm not running IE, I'm running Mozilla."
Him: "Moz...?"
Me: "It's like Netscape 6."
Him: "We don't support Netscape."
Me: "I've been using your service for years with it just fine!"
Him: "Well close it down and run IE."
Me: "I can't, I'm not running Windows."
Him: "Are you on a Mac?"
Me: "No, I'm running Linux."
Him: { confusion }

And so on. Eventually I was cowed into firing up Windows on my wife's computer, and verifying that the error could still be seen there, which it could. He decided then it wasn't his responsibility, and bounced me to someone else who couldn't really help, and said somebody would call me back. At this point I'd been talking to them for 30 minutes. Several weeks on, nobody ever called back.

Vodafone

My second incident of pain occurred with Vodafone UK. All of their site works fine for me in Mozilla, barring one page. This is the page that lets you find out how much the tariffs are when you're using your phone abroad. A friend looked at the page and observed that there was Javascript in there which was actually meant to make the site work with Netscape 4, but broke on Mozilla-based browsers (like Netscape 6...). As the page was created in 2002 -- hooray for developers leaving version control comments in the page -- this seems all the more lunatic.

Anyway, I wrote to the technical support people who duly told me that they don't support Netscape browsers. Too bad. The same friend noticed that the name of the original developer was in the source code, and some Googling turned up his address. Unfortunately the developer was about to take a vacation, but to his credit actually did consider helping out and tweaking the page. I hope he feels sufficiently rested from his holiday.

Meanwhile, Vodafone got back to me again. The guy restates his position, citing that 96% of the internet population use IE (according to a survey from late last year, this figure seems about right, though I expect to see this figure decrease with increasing popularity of Mac OS X and mobile browsers such as Opera). Costs would be too high to support the rest of the browser using population.

Only the smallest bit of thinking is required to see that this is flawed. The error is with one page on the web site, out of thousands. Consider that alternative browser use is more prevalent among their higher-paying customers like myself (who while maybe aren't Linux users, are more likely to be Mac OS X users, or have some fancy pants PDA or smartphone.) Furthermore, since when is 4% an ignorable minority in a customer base of 13 million? That's 520,000 customers potentially disadvantaged.

The chap from Vodafone then pointed me to the recent story about AOL junking Netscape development, as if to say that soon I wouldn't be using a Mozilla-based browser at all. Actually, I think this is incredibly positive news. What has happened is that the establishment of the Mozilla Foundation could give the project the freedom and power it needs.

I also offered a counterpoint in the form of the news from Microsoft, released a few weeks earlier, that they've stopped work on Internet Explorer as a standalone product. Henceforth, IE will only be part of Windows. That means, among other things, Macintosh computers will never get any new versions of IE, and they'll be running Safari, Apple's browser. Apple users are a slightly harder section of your community to ignore, so they will have to address the multibrowser problem head-on soon anyway.

At the end of the day, the point here is that it's not actually about the browsers, it's about web standards! I don't want vendor XYZ to be supported, it's the standard I want supported.

In closing

With computer hardware, it's easy to choose products that are supported under Linux. The open source movement has ensured I have a wide range of quality software at my disposal. What is not assured me is that the web sites I use as part of my daily life are accessible to me -- my bank, my cellphone and so on. But you've heard this before. Web standards are important and large corporations are stupid and inhuman. Well, duh!

The killer here though is that it's most often the tool vendors one level up the chain that make this decision for companies. I'm sure that Vodafone would prefer to support everybody, but their platform or consultants of choice don't facilitate that -- and often for totally moronic technical reasons. I won't write my "why Broadvision sucks" rant right now, although it's so tempting.... And I won't even start on accessibility. Suffice to say I am overwhelmingly grateful that I'm not visually impaired and attempting to conduct my business on the web.

For now, I intend to fight with Vodafone until I get somewhere.

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