Acid test may prove new browsers are tough sell

A browser test, recently passed by Opera, likely isn't enough to draw customers or spur Microsoft to support new features.

Opera Software ASA recently became one of the few browser makers to pass the Acid2 test and while that may earn the company bragging rights in the developer community, it's unlikely to convince more Web users to switch from Microsoft's Internet Explorer, one analyst said.

Opera initially proposed the creation of the Acid2 test as a way to highlight the lack of support for some standard HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) features in Internet Explorer (IE) and other browsers, said Hakon Lie, chief technology officer for Opera. The Web Standards Project (WaSP), an independent group that supports the use of standards in browsers, created and hosts the test.

To pass the test, a browser must be able to accurately display the test page. Opening the page with IE reveals a large red block with some spots on it. A browser that passes the test, however, will display a smiley face and the words "hello world."

Apple Computer's Safari was the first to pass the test last year. It took until last week, about a full year's worth of work, to tweak the Opera browser enough to pass the test, Wie said.

If more browsers support the features in the test, designers will be able to create better sites, he said. Developers often feel they can't use some available tools because they aren't supported in IE, the most widely used browser, Wie said. "There's a reluctance for developers to use features that aren't widely supported. The least advanced browser holds things back," he said.

Last year, Chris Wilson, a developer working for Microsoft on IE, wrote in a blog posting that Microsoft wasn't planning to ensure that IE7, the next version of IE that is currently available as a beta, could pass the Acid2 test. He describes the Acid2 test as a broad wish list of browser features that goes beyond standard CSS and HTML. However, even though IE7 won't pass the test, Acid2 has been helpful to Microsoft as an indicator of features that are important to developers, he said.

WaSP said it included features that Web designers want and that are based on Web standards in the test.

Trying to win customers from IE by touting support for additional design features is a tough sell for the competitive browsers, said Iris Cremers, an analyst with Forrester Research. "That's not going to do the trick. There's really no novelty there," she said. A recent Forrester study found that most Web users perceive that a browser's job is to display Web pages and that the pages will largely look the same no matter what browser they use.

Browser developers will have to create very innovative changes to the way browsers are used to encourage more customers to switch from IE, she said. That's increasingly difficult since many of the features that some browsers include to add value, such as pop-up blockers or improved security, are now offered by separate stand-alone software, she said.

Forrester research shows that so far the competitive browsers haven't delivered the necessary features to drive mass adoption. A recent Forrester study showed that 59 percent of Web users in North America and 69 percent in Europe use IE. Despite the buzz around competitive browsers, last year just 13 percent of Web users in North America switched their browser, the study found.

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Nancy Gohring

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