Using CSS3: Older Browsers And Common Considerations

With the arrival of IE9, Microsoft has signalled its intent to work more with standards-based technologies. With IE still the single most popular browser and in many ways the browser for the uninitiated, this is hopefully the long awaited start of us Web craftsmen embracing the idea of using CSS3 as freely as we do CSS 2.1. However, with IE9 not being supported on versions of Windows before Vista and a lot of businesses still running XP and reluctant (or unable) to upgrade, it might take a while until a vast majority of our users will see the new technologies put to practice.

While plenty of people out there are using CSS3, many aren’t so keen or don’t know where to start. This article will first look at the ideas behind CSS3, and then consider some good working practices for older browsers and some new common issues.

A Helpful Analogy

The best analogy to explain CSS3 that I’ve heard relates to the world of film. Filmmakers can’t guarantee what platform their viewers will see their films on. Some will watch them at the cinema, some will watch them at home, and some will watch them on portable devices. Even among these few viewing options, there is still a massive potential for differences: IMAX, DVD, Blu-ray, surround sound — somebody may even opt for VHS!

So, does that mean you shouldn’t take advantage of all the great stuff that Blu-ray allows with sound and video just because someone somewhere will not watch the film on a Blu-ray player? Of course not. You make the experience as good as you can make it, and then people will get an experience that is suitable to what they’re viewing the movie on.

A lot about CSS3 can be compared to 3-D technology. They are both leading-edge technologies that add a lot to the experience. But making a film without using 3-D technology is still perfectly acceptable, and sometimes even necessary. Likewise, you don’t need to splash CSS3 gradients everywhere and use every font face you can find. But if some really do improve the website, then why not?

However, simply equating CSS3 to 3-D misses the point. In many cases, CSS3 simply allows us to do the things that we’ve been doing for years, but without all the hassle.

To Gracefully Degrade or Progressively Enhance?

In film, you create the best film you can make and then tailor the product to the viewing platform. Sound familiar? If you have dabbled in or even taken a peek at CSS3, it should.

There are two schools of thought with CSS3 usage, and it would be safe to say that the fundamental principle of both is to maintain a website’s usability for those whose browsers do not support CSS3 capabilities, while providing CSS3 enhancements for those whose browsers do. In other words, make sure the film still looks good even without the 3-D specs. In many ways, the schools of thought are similar, and regardless of which you adopt, you will face many of the same concerns and issues, only from different angles.

Graceful Degradation

With graceful degradation, you code for the best browsers and ensure that as the various layers of CSS3 are peeled away on older browsers, those users still get a usable (even if not necessarily as pleasing an) experience.

The approach is similar (although not identical) to using an IE6-only style sheet, whereby you serve a certain set of styles to most users, while serving alternate styles to users of IE6 and lower. Normally, the IE6 version of a website removes or replaces styling properties that don’t work in IE6, along with fixes for any layout quirks. Graceful degradation differs in that it makes use of the natural fallbacks in the browser itself, and fixes are determined by browser capabilities rather than specific browser versions. Also, graceful degradation does not normally require an entirely different set of styles. The result, though, is that the majority of users get the normal view, and then tweaks are applied for people who have yet to discover a better browser.

Aggressive graceful degradation is at the heart of Andy Clarke’s recent book, Hardboiled Web Design, and the accompanying website makes great use of graceful degradation. There are plenty of other examples, including Do Websites Need to Look Exactly the Same in Every, which was built to showcase the technique, and Virgin Atlantic’s vtravelled blog, designed by John O’Nolan, which shows some great subtle fallbacks that most users wouldn’t even notice. And if you’re a WordPress user, why not compare your admin dashboard in IE to it in another browser?

Progressive Enhancement

Progressive enhancement follows the process in reverse: that is, building for lower-support browsers and then using CSS3 to enhance the experience of those with more capable browsers. This used to be done, and still is by some, with separate enhancement style sheets.

As a starting point, most people will code for a sensible standards-based browser, then add some code to support browsers such as IE7 and 8, and then possibly thrown in some fixes for IE6 for good measure, and then step back and think, “How can I improve this with CSS3?” From there, they would add properties such as rounded corners, gradients, @font-face text replacement and so on.

As browser makers add support, progressive enhancement appears to be taking a back seat to graceful degradation. But progressive enhancement is a very good approach for getting started with CSS3 properties and learning how they work.

Examples of the technique include the personal websites of Sam Brown and Elliot Jay Stocks, which both feature enrichment-type style sheets, Elliot has spoken on the matter, and the slides from his 2009 Web Directions South talk, “Stop Worrying and Get on With It (Progressive Enhancement and Intentional Degradation),” make for good reading.

Css3-102 in Using CSS3: Older Browsers And Common Considerations
Elliot Jay Stock’s presentation ‘Stop Worrying and Get on With It (Progressive Enhancement and Intentional Degradation)’

Comparing the two, graceful degradation can be considered a top-down approach, starting with browsers most capable of utilizing CSS3 and working down to older browsers that lack support.

Progressive enhancement works the other way, bottom-up, using a standards-based browser of choice as the baseline, along maybe with IE7, and then adding CSS3 for browsers that support it. Its benefit is that it is easy to work with when you’re just getting used to CSS3, and it’s also a sensible approach when adding CSS3 to older websites.
Whichever approach you choose, there are a number of things to consider, what with all the CSS3 properties that are coming out. Later on, we will look at considerations for certain key properties.

How To Do It?

Whatever your approach, you will no doubt find yourself thinking through the common fallback process at some point: what would this element look like with a certain property, and what would it look like without it? Would it look fine or broken? If it would look broken, there’s a good chance you will need to do something about it.

As a typical path, you would first implement a feature with CSS3, then with CSS 2.1, then (maybe) with JavaScript, and then with whatever hack you used to use for legacy browsers. You could argue that progressive enhancement would slightly modify this path, using CSS 2.1 first, then CSS3.

At each stage, you should determine whether degrading or enhancing a feature would become unnecessarily complex and whether simply providing an alternative would be more sensible.

Ordering Properties

Let’s take a quick look at ordering properties and how browsers interpret them. Browser makers initially offer CSS3 functionality via browser prefixes: -moz for Mozilla, -webkit for Chrome and Safari, -o for Opera, etc. Each browser then ignores any prefixes not meant for it. The convention is to list the browser-specific prefixes first and then the default property, as follows:

.somediv {
	-moz-border-radius: 5px;
	-webkit-border-radius: 5px;
	border-radius: 5px; }

Yes, this creates a little overhead, but when you consider how such effects were achieved before CSS3, it’s really not much.

Browsers that don’t support the property will ignore it. Any browser that does support it will implement its browser-specific version; and when it eventually supports the generic property, it will implement that.

Why order it in this way? Once all of the browsers implement a property the same way, then they will adopt the default version of the property; until then, they will use the prefixed version. By listing the properties in the order shown above, we ensure that the standard version is implemented as the fallback once it is supported, hopefully leading to more consistent rendering across browsers.


JavaScript is the most common method of enabling cross-browser CSS3 features support, and it can either be used as a substitute for or to enable CSS3 properties in older browsers or be used as an alternative.


A useful JavaScript tool for implementing CSS3 fallbacks is Modernizr. For anyone working with CSS3 in a production environment (as opposed to merely as a proof of concept), it is essential. Modernizr enables you to use CSS3 for properties where it is supported, and to provide sensible alternatives where it isn’t.

Css3-103 in Using CSS3: Older Browsers And Common Considerations

Modernizr works by adding classes to the html element of the page, which you would then call in the style sheet.

For example, to display a different background when CSS3 gradients are not supported, your code would look something like this:

.somediv {
	background: -webkit-gradient(linear, 0% 0%, 0% 100%,
	  from(#660C0C), to(#616665), color-stop(.6,#0D0933)); }

.no-cssgradients .somediv {
	background: url('/images/gradient.jpg'); }

Conversely, to display a different background only where the CSS3 property is supported, you would do this:

.cssgradients .somediv {
	background: -webkit-gradient(linear, 0% 0%, 0% 100%,
	  from(#660C0C), to(#616665), color-stop(.6,#0D0933));}

.somediv {
	background: url('/images/gradient.jpg'); }

In this way, you control what is shown in the absence of a property, and you tailor the output to what is sensible. In this case, you could serve a gradient image in the absence of support for CSS3 gradients.

With this additional control, you can tailor the output quite accurately and avoid any clashes that might arise from a missing property.


Sadly, this has nothing to do with the tasty dessert. CSS3 PIE stands for progressive Internet Explorer. As the official description says:

PIE makes Internet Explorer 6 to 8 capable of rendering several of the most useful CSS3 decoration features.

Css3-104 in Using CSS3: Older Browsers And Common Considerations

While it doesn’t support a myriad of features, it does allow you to use box-shadow, border-radius and linear gradients in IE without doing much extra to the code. First, upload the CSS PIE JavaScript file, and then when you want to apply the functionality, you would include it in the CSS, like so:

.somediv {
	-webkit-border-radius: 5px;
	-moz-border-radius: 5px;
	border-radius: 5px;
	behavior: url(path/to/; }

Fairly straightforward, and it can save you the hassle of having to use JavaScript hacks to achieve certain effects in IE.


CSS3 has expanded its repertoire beyond advanced selectors such as [rel="selector"] and pseudo-selectors such as :focus, to include selectors such as :nth-of-type, which give you much more control and focus and allow you to dispense with a lot of presentational classes and IDs. Support for selectors varies greatly, especially with the wide variety of additional selectors being introduced.

Css3-105 in Using CSS3: Older Browsers And Common Considerations

Therefore, the third weapon in your CSS3 arsenal will most likely be Selectivzr, which enables advanced CSS3 selectors to be used in older browsers and is aimed squarely at old IE versions.

Head over to the Selectivizr website and download and add the script. You will have to pair it with a JavaScript framework such as jQuery or MooTools, but chances are you’re working with one already. The home page is worth a quick look because not all selectors are supported by all JavaScript libraries, so make sure what you need is supported by your library of choice.


The main issue with all of the solutions above is that they’re based on JavaScript, and some website owners will be concerned about users who have neither CSS3 support nor JavaScript enabled. The best solution is to code sensibly and make use of natural CSS fallbacks and allow the browser to ignore CSS properties that it doesn’t recognize.

This may well make your website look a bit less like the all-singing, all-dancing CSS3-based design that you had in mind, but remember that the number of people without CSS3 support and without JavaScript enabled will be low, and the best you can do is make sure they get a usable, functional and practical experience of your website, thus allowing you to continue tailoring the output to the user’s platform.


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