As new Web applications debut, and older ones are enhanced, we spend more of our work time in a browser. Unfortunately, we also seem to be spending more time trying to figure out why our browsers aren't displaying the sites we visit correctly, or at all.
These days it's tough being a Web designer. Even if you create sites that comply with the latest HTML and other Web standards, you can't be sure that the pages will open or function as intended for all of the site's visitors. The fact is, Internet Explorer plays by its own set of rules, so in effect sites need to be designed twice.
Microsoft claims that Internet Explorer 8--currently in beta--will support more standards, but this itself could cause problems as sites designed for IE7 don't load correctly in the new release. Web designers will be able to add a "meta element" to pages that allows them to open in the new IE release as they would in IE7.
Get Internet Explorer 7 back on track
Microsoft offers an IE7 troubleshooting guide, but I can save you some time by summarizing its advice: First, check for Windows updates; second, scan your computer for viruses; third, if you don't mind losing your customizations, reset the browser to its default settings by clicking Tools > Internet Options > Advanced > Reset (a last resort); and fourth, disable your add-ons and toolbars, and enable them one at a time to find the one causing the problem.
Before you resort to option 3 or 4, try what Microsoft describes as options 5, 6, and 7: Delete your temporary Internet files, browser history, and cookies. Doing so is simple, relatively painless (sites you revisit will load more slowly), and most importantly, the likeliest source of the problem. Choose Tools > Internet Options > General, click Delete under Browsing History, and select Delete files under Temporary Internet Files, History, and Cookies. Click Yes at each warning, and then Close and OK.
If the problem persists, go the no-add-on route. To open IE7 with no add-ons or toolbars enabled, click Start > Run (in XP), or press the Windows key (in Vista), type iexplore.exe -extoff, and press Enter. If the problem disappears, close IE and reopen it normally. Disable all your add-ons but one to determine if that's the source of the problem: Click Tools > Manage Add-ons > Enable or Disable Add-ons, select the add-ons one at a time, and click Disable for each, but keep one enabled. If IE works OK, enable another and test the browser again. Enable the add-ons one by one until the problem recurs. When it does, you've found the troublemaker.
In the event that none of these steps cures what ails IE7, it's time to break out the big guns: Boot into Safe Mode with Networking, log into a different user account, or go the clean-boot route. Microsoft offers step-by-step guides for these and other IE7 advanced-troubleshooting techniques.
Diagnose Firefox failures
Figuring out what's wrong with Mozilla's open-source browser is similar to the troubleshooting steps for IE, with two big exceptions: First, you can search for solutions at the Bugzilla service; and second, if you think you've discovered a bug in the program, you can report it (Bugzilla account required).
As with IE, start your Firefox troubleshooting by updating to the most recent version of the browser by clicking Help > Check for Updates. Next, update your add-ons by selecting Tools > Add-ons > Find Updates. MozillaZine provides a list of problematic extensions.
Recently Firefox refused to load my Gmail in-box. I fixed the problem in a jiffy by clearing the browser's cache: Click Tools > Options > Advanced > Network > Clear Now > OK. MozillaZine describes other standard Firefox diagnostics, and it also provides a Firefox support forum.
Bonus tip: All the attention paid to Firefox and Internet Explorer makes it easy to forget that there are many other worthy browsers available--for free. One of my favorites is Opera, currently at version 9.26. This browser has a reputation for being lightweight but full-featured. I've also been spending time with Apple's version of Safari for Windows, but I prefer browsing with Firefox on a Mac, and I haven't seen anything in the Windows version of Safari that would make me want to switch. If you spend a lot of time on social-network sites, you may find the Firefox-based Flock Browser to your liking.
Monday: better ways to search Outlook, Thunderbird, and Gmail.