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Which Browser is Best? The Challenge of Delivering Assessments using Modern Web Browsers

Which Browser is Best? The Challenge of Delivering Assessments using Modern Web Browsers

ADVENTURES in Online Testing  (Volume 7, Issue 2)

by Chris Dalessandri, Managing Member, OWL Testing Software
Perhaps this sounds familiar. It's Monday morning and you are easing into your work week. You decide to catch up on a few news videos while you sort out your day. But it is not to be. When you click on the link, the video just keeps spinning and spinning. It does not want to load. This seems strange to you because this website always works. After all, that is why you keep the site bookmarked. Oh well enough time has been spent on that endeavor. It is time to get to the work at hand, building some testing items. Now your OWL Test Management System is telling you that the audio won't load. This is no way to start the day. Next you send a message to the OWL support team and they suggest trying a different browser. Sure enough, now it is working. You are grateful for the fix, but these browsers are enough to drive you mad! You wish someone could just tell you once and for all -- which browser is the best? Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon question and, even more unfortunately, it is a question that does not have a simple answer. Our users often ask us many questions about browsers. Which browser is best to use for testing? Why does the recommendation keep changing? Why doesn't OWL support an older version of a certain browser? Why have there been so many issues with Java? What can I do? This article will attempt to answer  these important questions.

Why are we using browsers at all?

Let's start with the fundamental underlying question which is: Given all of the challenges with developing a Test Management System that uses a Web browser, why use a browser to deliver tests at all? This may seem like an obvious answer but the best reason is that browsers are ubiquitous. Every device now has a browser and most people use some type of browser every day. This gives tremendous flexibility to how and where you can deliver tests and tutorials. It also means that your test takers are familiar with accessing content via a browser, and are very comfortable with this method of content delivery. Ubiquity, flexibility and familiarity are powerful reasons to work around any difficulties presented by delivering tests via a Web browser.

Which browser is the best to use for testing?

This is the question we hear most often. 'Please just tell me; which browser is the best to use for testing?' Unfortunately the answer to this question is a moving target. It varies from month to month based on what the browser manufacturers are doing. And, the answer also is  subject to what your test requires to function properly (i.e., Does your test contain videos? Are you recording audio responses?) As long-time OWL users know, our browser recommendations have changed over the years. For a while, we recommended that our customers use Mozilla's Firefox. Eventually Firefox became overloaded and slow so we began to recommend Google's Chrome. At that time, Chrome offered a significant increase in speed. At the beginning of this year, we began recommending Microsoft's Internet Explorer to our users because it was the only browser effectively managing Java. As of this article's penning, we are again recommending Firefox. The current version of Firefox is faster and more stable than the current versions of either IE or Chrome. The turmoil with Java has subsided so that issue is now less of a consideration.

Why does the recommendation keep changing?

All this back and forth leads to the obvious question – why does the recommendation keep changing? With the exception of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, browsers have moved to a "rapid development" model and even Microsoft has shortened it's development cycle. In Troy Hunt's post from January 2013, he explains it this way, "It took more than 5 years to get from IE 6 to IE 7. It took just 19 months to go from IE 9 to IE 10. In the same 19 month period, Chrome made 11 major releases of their browser. The rate of change is increasing and by extension, the rate that browsers are being superseded is following." And the pace has continued to accelerate. This year Chrome went from version 24.0.1312.52 to 29.0.1547.57 in the first eight months with updates occurring roughly once a month. Furthermore, Chrome has always updated automatically without user intervention. Firefox has now moved to this method of delivering updates as well. What this means for you is that your browser is changing frequently, and often without your knowledge.

Why have there been so many issues with Java?

We realize that many of our users were inconvenienced by problems with Java at the beginning of this year. At that time we began recommending Microsoft's IE to our customers who were having these issues. During this period, rapid discovery of zero-day exploits taking advantage of holes in Java caused Chrome and Firefox to stop supporting any but the latest version Java. This caused tests to fail when in these browsers. While IE was updating less frequently than the other two popular browsers, this became an asset. Because of its deliberate pace, it did not disable Java and would, therefore, still allow recording. The current versions of Firefox and Chrome are again able to accommodate Java.

Why doesn't OWL support an older version of a certain browser?

The rapid development methodology of the browser manufacturers makes supporting older versions of browsers difficult. In fact, the manufacturers themselves often do not support their outdated versions. At OWL, we try to lessen the burden of browser confusion by making the OWL Tester responsive and robust when used on all of the major browsers. We quality assurance test the OWL Tester on all of the supported browsers using numerous unique use cases and test configurations. We also follow a rapid development model and attempt to update the OWL Tester within a few days of the browsers' updates. Sometimes we update even earlier by testing on the beta releases of the major browsers. Furthermore, OWL's development methodology dictates that we are closely compliant with the current HTML and CSS specifications. These HTML and CSS specifications are the guidelines for what all browsers should support. While our hope is that browser manufacturers will follow best practices and also comply with these specifications, their level of compliance often varies from one version of a browser to the next.

What can I do?

At OWL, we strive to maintain the flexibility of our online test delivery. We continuously test our software using all supported versions of modern browsers. We recognize that many of our customers test in environments in which a specific browser is prescribed by their IT department. Furthermore, your individual computer setup may vary from that of your examinees. This presents some limitations, however; here are some suggestions to make your OWL Tests run better in any browser:
1. Avoid using third party toolbars
2. Always use the most recent version of modern browsers
3. Keep your system up-to-date

Although it can be frustrating at times, we believe the browsers continue to be a challenge worth tackling. Our Web-based test delivery model gives OWL users a complete test management system that is not only portable but also scalable and affordable. These benefits prove to be compelling reasons why many of the world's finest enterprises select the OWL Test Management System.

NOTE: Data source for "Pace of Development" chart is Wikipedia entries for each browser. Cumulative number represents those categorized as "major" for the given entry.