[AI] Internet Explorer aims to embrace the web again

renuka warriar erenuka at gmail.com
Thu Mar 13 08:37:19 EDT 2008

The Hindu News Update Service
News Update Service
Thursday, March 13, 2008 : 1040 Hrs       

Sci. & Tech.
Internet Explorer aims to embrace the web again 


By Tim Anderson 

Microsoft's next version of its browser will use web standards by default - but questions remain over other key technologies 

Deep in the bowels of a Las Vegas hotel, a smiley face and the words "Hello World" display on a web page. Applause breaks out. The page is called the Acid2
Browser Test, and the web browser is a preview of Internet Explorer 8, presented by its platform architect, Chris Wilson. "Thank you from the bottom of
my heart," says a member of the audience. More applause. 

This was the scene at last week's Mix08 conference, where Microsoft showed around 3,000 web designers and developers its latest internet technology. The
Acid2 page (webstandards.org/action/acid2/) was created by the Web Standards Project to test whether a browser conforms to the official standards for describing
page layout, mainly focusing on cascading style sheets (CSS). 

The reason for the applause is twofold. First is that until now Microsoft's web browser, used by 75% of those surfing the net, has never been close to passing
the test. Second, Internet Explorer's poor standards compliance causes significant extra work for web designers. 

When users navigate to a web page, they expect it to look and work the same irrespective of which browser or operating system they use. Achieving this is
hard, since different browsers display the same page differently, with IE often the worst offender. Web developers now hope for a time when they do not
have to insert conditional code to account for these differences, but can deliver one standard page to all browsers. 

Eric Meyer, an independent CSS expert, told this reporter: "CSS support in IE8 looks thus far to be very, very promising. It's very important, because the
level of CSS support in IE7 and IE6 has served as a brake on advanced CSS adoption by authors, limiting them to less advanced techniques and capabilities."

Internet Explorer has a curious history. There were six new versions between 1995 and 2001, the time of the "browser wars" with Netscape. Then the war was
over, Microsoft had won, and it didn't release another major version of its browser for five years - long enough for it to become thoroughly out-of-date.

IE's CSS implementation fell far behind that of other popular browsers. In late 2006 Microsoft released IE7, which fixed some problems but still lagged
behind its rivals. "Differences between browsers simply waste too much developer time," said Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's general manager for IE, speaking
at the Mix08 keynote, but not mentioning the extent which Microsoft itself created the problem. 

I asked Hachamovitch, who has led the Explorer team since 2003, why it has taken Microsoft so long to address these deficiencies. "It comes down to what
we were doing with our time," he said. "Between 2001 and 2003 we were building what you experience now as Windows Presentation Foundation and Silverlight."

These technologies display not HTML, the language of web pages, but XAML, Microsoft's proprietary code for creating rich visual content. "In 2003 and 2004
we were making IE secure," he continues, referring to the work that went into the security-focused Windows XP Service Pack 2. Security remained the theme
in IE7. 

The dilemma is that fixing bugs introduces compatibility problems. "You can't just flick a switch and have all the browsers in the world change, or have
all the servers and services in the world change," says Hachamovitch. The consequence is that some websites look worse than before, because they detect
that IE is accessing them and deliver content that takes into account its presumed peculiarities. 

Microsoft's answer is to build "compatibility modes" into IE8. The manner in which it does this is controversial. "Our decision was: do we default to the
IE7 compatible mode, or do we default to the better standards mode? The experience we had releasing IE7 was that web developers were very slow to modify
their sites. We want to keep the web working," says Hachamovitch. 

Microsoft initially announced that IE8 would behave by default like IE7. Page designers would have to include special code to turn on IE8's standards support.
This decision was greeted with a hail of protest, because it might perpetuate a non-standard web. Earlier this month, Hachamovitch announced that Microsoft
had changed its mind. "We've decided that IE8 will, by default, interpret web content in the most standards compliant way it can," he wrote on the official
Explorer blog. 

Why the change of heart? Apparently the key was a separate strategic announcement in February this year, covering what Microsoft calls interoperability
principles and promising "open connections to its products, support for industry standards and data portability." According to Hachamovitch, "I read through
the interoperability principles and I started discussing them with other senior people in the company. It didn't take that long. We have a more interoperable
way, we have a more compatible way." 

It sounds good, but Hachamovitch's warmth begins to fade when I broach the vexed subject of browser scripting. The context is important. Hachamovitch had
already stated that Microsoft spent three years neglecting IE for the sake of a more proprietary technology, which is now appearing on the web as a browser
plug-in called Silverlight. This is similar in some ways to Adobe's Flash, and supports rich multimedia effects within web pages, as well as the ability
to run applications written in Microsoft's .NET Framework. 

Silverlight and Flash applications in effect bypass the browser. Web standards advocates are wary of them, because they replace the open web with content
that depends on a proprietary plugin. The Mozilla Foundation, creator of the cross-platform Firefox browser, prefers to upgrade the capabilities of the
browser itself. A key component of this is JavaScript, the programming language that runs in the browser and which is standardised by ECMA, the European
standards body, under the name ECMAScript. Mozilla is keen to see the current JavaScript upgraded to a far more powerful version called ECMAScript 4.0.

"Why do we care about ECMAScript 4.0? The answer is that JavaScript is the language of the net. We want to keep pushing that technology forward to make
it easier for people to build bigger, faster, more secure web sites," Mozilla's vice president of engineering, Mike Schroepfer, told me. 

I asked Hachamovitch if Microsoft will implement ECMAScript 4.0. He prevaricates, talking about competing demands on the IE development team, and saying:
"Right now there isn't really an ECMAScript 4 offering to implement, there is an ECMAscript for discussion." 

On the ECMAScript standardisation committee, Microsoft has apparently been stalling, coming up with last-minute counter proposals instead of advancing the
4.0 standard. "Sometimes you get political arguments veiled in technical arguments," says Schroepfer. Is it possible that Microsoft is stifling the advancement
of JavaScript in order to promote programming within Silverlight instead? I put this to Schroepfer, who says: "I don't know the intentions, I'd rather
focus on the actions and say, why can't we work together to take the technologies that have worked on the web for 10 years and move them forward, to the
benefit of everyone?" 

The conversation shows that while Microsoft is clearly serious about implementing better web standards in IE8, the battle for control over which technology
dominates the web is not over yet. 

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