I read with interest – and amazement – today that Parcelforce’s website doesn’t work for people who are using Linux (source: The Register). Essentially, the website won’t allow you to ship a parcel if you’re using Linux – it checks to see which Web browser you are using, and stops you in your tracks if your browser isn’t on its approved list.

If your browser isn’t supported, then your only option is to use the good old telephone to book a collection.

The Parcelforce site apparently supports Windows 2000/XP (no mention of Vista), Mac OS X, Firefox 1 (or later) and Internet Explorer 6 (or later). Tough luck to everyone else.

Like the majority of people, you’re probably using one of the ‘mainstream’ browsers supported by Parcelforce, so if you used the site, you’d be none the wiser. But the days of website developers saying “Internet Explorer has the largest market share, so as long as it works in that, we’re happy” should be long, long gone.

First of all, there’s no real technical reason why any website should be dependent on the user having a specific browser. Yes, it can be easier for the developer if they are only developing for, and testing, one browser – but should a company the size of Parcelforce really be putting up with that kind of lazy, decade-old attitude?

Parcelforce isn’t alone. For example, First Direct’s on-line banking system doesn’t work with Safari on the Mac, and, when you ring the support team, they blame Apple in a misinformed attempt to pass the blame. Then they suggest that you install Firefox. Fair enough, that works – but the customer should not have to change his/her behaviour to suit the supplier. In the on-line world, people can vote very easily with their feet – OK, with their fingers/mice.

In Parcelforce’s case, the percentage of people who can’t access the service will be small, since they support Firefox and people using Macs – but it’s still customers you are losing or cheesing off, for no good reason. It’s not unusual for us to look at a website, and find that key parts of it only work in Internet Explorer. The developers didn’t test anything else, and nor did the client.

True, Internet Explorer’s market share is still the largest – but it is shrinking. Many people think that Internet Explorer has 90-odd% share of the market – but that’s no longer the case. It’s now used by 67.55% of people. Firefox has 16.98% of the market and Apple’s Safari has 8.29% – and, whereas Firefox and Safari’s share is increasing, Internet Explorer’s is shrinking. So, if a website only works with Internet Explorer, it’s now locking out around a third of the Internet.

So, it’s not only technically unnecessary to have a website that locks out part of your audience, it’s also commercially daft.

Another rapidly growing trend is the use of mobile devices, such as the iPhone, Blackberry and Android-based phones. The use of these devices is literally exploding – and why not? Now that these smart phones deliver the ‘real’ Internet, people want that real Internet everywhere. If they use their on-line bank at home, they’ll want it on their phone, too – and the same goes for services such as booking parcel collections. The whole point of a mobile device is to use it while you are out and about – you don’t want to have to go home, or back to the office, to do something you should be able to do on your phone. This sector of the market really is growing – Internet-enabled phones already outnumber PCs worldwide, but that’s not the ‘real’ Internet, but the lame WAP Internet. Once real browsers become the norm on phones, it will be a foolish company indeed that doesn’t support them.
Transactional sites such as Parcelforce and First Direct’s do need some pretty heavyweight code to provide sophisticated functionality and make them run quickly and securely – but such code should be running at a server level and not be dependent in any way on the type of browser.

There’s a key similarity between these two sites – if you, or your organisation, is a customer of Parcelforce or First Direct, then changing suppliers is not a trivial matter. You’re not just changing websites, you’re changing a key supplier. Perhaps this gives such companies the weight to enforce their ‘standards’ on customers – I know that sites such as Facebook, Amazon or Play, which have to win customers all on their own couldn’t afford to lock out part of the market.

I can understand why a site might look a bit different in different browsers, but the core functionality of the site should be available to all. End of story, no debate – and no excuses.