IE8 and Web Standards

Just prior to Microsofts Mix 08 conference in Las Vegas in this first week in March 2008, IE General Manager Dean Hachamovitch announced that:
“We’ve decided that IE8 will, by default, interpret web content in the most standards compliant way it can. This decision is a change from what we’ve posted previously”. The reaction of the Web developers on the IEBlog where the announcement was made is profuse and overwhelmingly positive. And I would have to agree – but I am also from Missouri on Web Standards and Redmond. Here is the thinking.

Why Now ?

It appears that my skepticism is not alone. Joe Wilcox at Microsoft-Watch is decidedly so as well. Thus, there may be a number of factors that coming into play. I list some of the most important:
1)Microsoft is going to be launching a huge Office and Apps to the Web initiative. This major push would not go well if Microsoft carried the burden of being the worst company in terms of meeting Web Standards;
2)Microsoft is losing presence in Web 2.0 development drastically. See several dozen Web Frameworks here but with only four having .NET and Microsoft roots.
3)Microsoft can not afford to antagonize the Web development community. Currently being least Web Standard compliant, Microsoft IE browser still owns at least 60% markets share, so developers have to spend 20-40%of their time making sure that their Web code works in IE. Thus, as Redmond surely wants and will need developers to support their new Office + Apps on the Web initiative, Microsoft cannot be source of Web developers major headaches.
4)Microsoft strenuously denies that this has any legal induced implications:
“While we do not believe any current legal requirements would dictate which rendering mode a browser must use, this step clearly removes this question as a potential legal and regulatory issue.”
Trust me – given the recent EU $1.3B fine and complaints to the EU commission from the Opera browser people on Microsofts web standards truculence to date, I think the legal beagles whispered into Steve Ballmers ears – “kill two birds with one stone, leave the impression that Microsoft is moving dramatically towards Interoperability and Web standards.” Yeah they came at him from both ears;
5)This is Ray Ozzie trying to make good on the recent Microsoft Interoperability announcement;
6)IE continues to lose market share at a growing rate to Firefox and the other browsers. The new Firefox 3.0 and Safari 4 are major improvements and getting large press. Their innovations and standards adoption may win over the community – forcing more standards on Microsoft and IE;
7)Microsoft IE7, after initial fast take-up, has stalled out over the past few months in displacing IE6 and IE5 (holding steady at 32% of all browsers), this may be the necessary step to force retirement of IE6 and IE5 because Microsofts new Web Office+Apps initiative will require a standards compliant browser.
As we shall see immediately below, the announcement of what Web Standards will be met is carefully danced around in the Hachamovitch posting.

Whose Web Standards Compliant?

In an interview with A Microsoft manager a few years ago, I asked what was the key to his softwares success. “We set the standards” was the immediate response. During the course of the interview, it became obvious that this manger meant that Microsoft did not set the standards alone by innovation and doing the hard work in the committees, but also by the economic pressure of owning dominant market share on the desktop, in Office apps, and on the Web with browser usage. So if you read the announcement from Dean Hachamovitch posting carefully, you will see a whiff of the “There Will Be Blood”(the Daniel Day Lewis Oscar winning movie performance) in the note. Since we have to wait until Thursday or later to get a clarification from Dean at his Mix08 keynote speech let me provide a list of possible levels of Web standards adoption:
A)ACID 2 level. IE8 beta is rumored to be close to meeting ACID2 tests. Microsoft could stop roughly here and say that WaSP(the compromised Web Standards project) having been met, Redmond will wait until IE9 to bring itself closer to Firefox/Opera/Safari compliance with web standards. This is less likely given point 7) above and the fact this would leave a huge number of W3C, JavaScript and DOM problems in IE8;
B)Close to Firefox/Opera/Safari compliance but with no move to deprecate all of the IE proprietary JavaScript, DOM, and HTML extensions. Rather, in the interest of “backward compatibility”, these would be proposed as defacto standards that should be made permanent. This is a key issue – a lot of old IE code does not work because unlike the other browser vendors, Microsoft has not deprecated these extensions warning users (and more importantly, developers)that they will be phased out or changed to meet W3C and other web standards. Again point 4) above and Operas complaint may limit what Microsoft can do;
C)Microsoft has just ignored and/or thwarted a number of important Web standards such as SVG, XForms, E4X, JavaScript 1.6++, JPEG2000, DOM xtensions to meet new tabbed browsing and other features to mention but a few. Now that Redmond seeks to take on the mantle of Web Standards Compliant these issues come right back to the fore because the other browsers vendors have implemented them and are moving jointly on advancing them. What will Redmond say and do after be obstructionists for the past 10 years?
D)Finally there is the compliance promise from the back in the 1997/1998 time frame. Microsoft promised then, to allay the fears of big organizations that they could safely ditch Netscape 4 and adopt IE 5, to support all W3C HTML, CSS, and DOM standards. As you can see from the table here, even IE7 leaves a lot compliance on the table given that most standards have not moved for 8-10 years.
Unfortunately, my guess is that Microsoft will try to finesse its newly acquired ACID2 compliance plus a remarkably few other move-to-standards for 1)further delays – it will be in IE9, 2)the other browser vendors have to adopt our defacto proprietary standards as the Web standard (with maybe a few deprecations); and 3)lets trade – XAML over XUL + SVG, WMP over JPEG2000, LINQ over XForms and in exchange we will do more compliance later. With certainty, I can say after Mix08 Web Standards will be one hot IT topic.

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