Adobe BrowserLabs Previews Web Sites

A simple truth of Web development is that different browsers handle Web sites differently. In order to help Web developers see how their sites will look on different browsers, Adobe (NASDAQ: ADBE) is now previewing a Web-based service called BrowserLab.

The new BrowserLab enables developers to see how their Web layouts will look on several, but not all, modern browsers. It’s a service that is in big demand already, as early adopters rush to try out the service that could potentially help in cross-browser Web site development.

“Due to the excitement, the initial capacity limit for the first round of the public preview was reached within the first 12 hours of its availability,” Scott Fegette, product manager of Adobe’s Web Suite products, told

Fegette said that Adobe initially allowed 5,000 users into the service, with a plan to add more users in the July timeframe.

Fegette said Adobe BrowserLab is about providing simplicity to Web designers, so with the first preview the company wanted to make sure it got the basics down before expanding to a bigger release. The BrowserLab effort was first disclosed last November, when Adobe referred to it as “Meer Meer.”

BrowserLab is currently available as a limited free preview from Adobe. The plan, according to Fegette, is to move to a paid service down the line, although Adobe has not announced the timing or pricing as of yet.

In the first phase, BrowserLab supports Firefox 2.x and 3.x, Internet Explorer 6.x and 7.x as well as Safari 3.x. BrowserLab does not support the recently released Internet Explorer 8, any version of Google Chrome (which exited beta in December) or Opera. It also does not have support for emerging Web browsers like Firefox 3.5 or Safari 4.

“Once browsers that are currently in beta become final releases, we’ll look at adding support for them,” Fegette said. “And as a tiered release, we’re going to be taking our queue from the community and adding the browser and OS support that they tell us they need.”

How it works

In a traditional Web development environment, developers often have multiple browsers installed in order to test their sites. BrowserLab changes that approach by showing multiple browsers in a side-by-side online window so developers can see the differences.

In order to deliver the service, Adobe is leaning on virtualization technology to abstract the underlying browsers.

“BrowserLab does indeed work with virtualized servers and browsers on the back-end to allow for easy expansion,” Fegette said. “The nature of virtualization allows us to scale quickly and easily with less hardware concerns.”

The first phase of BrowserLab is about gauging what is actually needed in real-world usage so Adobe can scale appropriately.

“There is a ton of browsers and systems we could support, but we need to focus and take care of what’s most important first, so getting a good read on what the required baseline level of browser support from our community is going to be critical,” Fegette said.

Standards vs. Browser Reality

While Web standards exist for HTML and other Web technologies, there are still some big differences in how the different browsers render content.

“Web designers tell us all the time that it’s a huge challenge that requires a tremendous amount of labor,” Fegette said. “It’s very difficult for design shops to standardize their designs for this reason and that becomes a concern from a branding standpoint.”

Fegette said that based on developer intent and the way developers build a page, there’s never any guarantee that a design tweak won’t introduce a cross-browser rendering issue.

“The problem BrowserLab is really trying to solve is one of context,” Fegette said. “With traditional and existing means for cross-browser testing, it tends to be such a hassle that it usually gets done too late to really inform the designer as they work. Having constant visual feedback as you work has always been a bit of a prohibitive process, and at best time-consuming. With BrowserLab you can test much earlier and often in a project, which ends up saving hours of bug fixes at the end.”

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