Pandering to the lowest common denominator?

Speaking of fine lines, here’s an age-old question that refuses to die. To what lengths does one go to support deprecated software?

My previous role was the ultimate sandbox; we worked specifically with iPads to produce web apps, and this afforded us the security of knowing exactly what we were working with. iOS changes aside, we were able to push the limits of experimentation within this wonderfully closed equilibrium.

Having worked as a general web designer in the past, however, I was painfully aware of support being needed across a far broader range of software and devices when it came to building this website. But I was not ready to put away my new toys!

Despite the extra effort required, I’m a big fan of graceful degradation – backwards-compatibility. These days a website doesn’t need to look exactly the same regardless of software or device; rather, it needs to function properly across the whole spectrum. Software that can support the full frills can enjoy it; everything else can gently fall back to more plain, but unbroken, versions of the same.

An example is Flexible Boxes, or flex-box. In summary, this is a display mode in CSS3 that allows content to intelligently adapt to the screen/device without the need for media queries, which can require an awful lot of processing power and do add a lot of bloat to your CSS files. In short, it does what people who don’t write markup think markup should actually do. It’s the bee’s knees.

Support is actually pretty broad, despite the enormous wall of code required to get it working across the board. For confused devices (hi, old versions of iOS) and the browsers that simply don’t want to play nice (I’m looking at you, IE), or prefer to render it all a little differently, we can fall back to media queries to force the issue – or in the case of old versions of IE, conditional stylesheets and design the old-fashioned way with explicit dimensions and floats or positioning.

Another example is viewport units. Less supported devices, sadly, but far less complicated to implement than flex-box. You’ll see a fair few uses of viewport units in this website – they’re a fantastic way of using width-height ratios in a responsive environment. Fallbacks are explicit dimensions – by no means ‘broken’ to the eye, but certainly not as tidy.

There are lines drawn in the sand, of course; if the software’s manufacturer doesn’t support it any more, neither do I (or most of the internet, for that matter). Thankfully we live in an age where evergreen browsers are taking over and both web developers and software developers alike are increasingly aggressive in withdrawing support for deprecated software. I somehow suspect that this age-old question has an answer looming on the horizon.