IE7 still not up to task on CSS

With all the attention IE7 has been getting and the long development time, (Internet Explorer 6, the last major version, was released almost five years ago), you’d think Microsoft would have devoted a lot more time to following web standards this time around. Unfortunately, things are not looking so good in this respect.

While everyone (myself included) has applauded Microsoft for making moves towards supporting standards, a mere slight improvement over IE6 is not enough this time. I mean, come on – they’re Microsoft, one of the largest software companies out there. Why can’t they seem to get things right?

The bane of web developers and designers

It’s a well-known secret among those involved in making websites that IE6 is horrible when it comes to supporting CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), a format for defining how webpages should be presented. Provided you’re not doing everything in Flash, and care about web standards, you’ll quickly find that you have to learn CSS in addition to (X)HTML if you want to properly design a website, possibly in addition to server-side technologies.

Designing your first website using CSS for the presentation, you’ll quickly find that IE6 is the odd one out, and hardest one to “make things look right” in. Out of all the selectors in CSS 2.1, IE6 only supports a few of them. Additionally, many of the pseudo-selectors, such as :hover, only work on certain elements. Boo-urns!

As most web developers/designers have switched over to a different browser, either by choice (Firefox/Opera) or because of necessity (Safari), they’ll quickly find themselves always having to refer back to IE6 to “fix” the site once things are already looking great in the other browsers. Thus, IE6 has been the target of many a web designer’s curses throughout the course of history. (Perhaps similar to how Netscape 4 caused many headaches years ago – but maybe not as bad as that!)

Corporate lethargy

Some would suggest this is merely the result of Microsoft growing too large and becoming a dinosaur of sorts, not able to respond to changes in the marketplace. A good example of this is their Live-series of web-based services and applications, most of which seem to be inferior to competing products offered by other companies. In this respect, it seems that Microsoft caught on a little too late to this trend.

However, I don’t think this is the case with IE7. Microsoft, by all accounts, has talented people working for them – there’s just no way they could have become so successful without talent. Microsoft research in particular has some really smart people working for it – an MS researcher recently visited our lab last month, and I was impressed not only by his depth of knowledge in his field, but also his breadth of knowledge. He seemed to know, in quite some detail, about each of the areas the people in my lab were engaged in.

Shunning standards?

Therefore, it seems that solving a problem like making IE7 standards-compliant can’t be that big of a problem. I mean, they have had five years – and other companies like Mozilla and Opera have made browsers that fairly standards compliant, with Opera being a bit better than Firefox at standards support. One argument could be that they don’t want to release a browser that’s so different from IE6 that sites will “break” on the new IE7. This isn’t accurate though, as they’ve already made enough changes to virtually guarantee that sites “made for IE6” will break on IE7.

As much as I hate to say it, some believe that IE7’s lack of support for standards is something that’s been deliberately “implemented”. Håkon Wium Lie, of Opera software, best sums it up in an interview on Slashdot:

It’s quite clear that Microsoft has the resources and talent to support CSS2 fully in IE and that plenty of people have reminded them why this is important. So, why don’t they do it? The fundamental reason, I believe, is that standards don’t benefit monopolists. Accepted, well-functioning, standards lower the barrier of entry to a market, and is therefore a threat to a monopolist.

From that perspective, it makes sense to leave CSS2 half-implemented. You can claim support (and many journalists will believe you), and you also ensure that no-one can use the unimplemented (or worse: buggily implemented) features of the standard. The only way to change the equation is to remind Microsoft how embarrassing it is to offer a sub-standard browser. And to use better browsers.

What he’s saying is certainly plausible – Microsoft has been known to engage in anti-competitive practices, and after all, anti-competitives practices are really sound (but perhaps not ethical) business strategies that only become available when you’re the clear market leader. And, when you have shareholders always squeezing you to make more money, sometimes business strategy can take a more sinister direction.

I want to stop short of actually declaring MS to be engaging in anti-competitive strategies here (though a compelling argument could be made for this), but I will say that the effects of their actions, for whatever motivations, are horrible for web development. Internet Explorer 6 was a big enough problem, as since it’s the majority market holder, professionals in website development had to account for it – there’s just no saying “Screw non-standard browsers”, when your expected client base is 80% (or higher) IE6. And, with the release of IE7 (to be pushed to users automatically), more problems will be created: sites made to work with IE6 will probably not work too well in IE7, and vice-versa. Clever tricks, whether through CSS or JavaScript will eventually provide work-arounds, but all of this adds substantially to the development time for a site.

So much for the chant, “Developers, developers, developers!” Microsoft, please fix IE7 before it’s widely released, and you’ll be sure to receive heartfelt thanks from many formerly-frustrated developers out there.

One Comment »

  1. […] Jetzt hat sich die Webdesign-Welt in den letzten Jahren recht gut mit den Macken des IE 6 arrangiert und das Web erlebt trotzdem gerade seinen 2. Frühling. Die Probleme die sich durch eine finale Veröffentlichung des 7ers ergeben wären weitaus gravierender als noch ein weiteres Jahr des Wartens und dafür dann die Auflage eines Browsers, der nicht nur mithalten kann, sondern neue Maßstäbe setzt. In der Form in der er jetzten erscheinen soll und verglichen mit Firefox, Opera und Co. ist der IE 7 ein alter Browser. Bei eBay würde man aus taktischen Gründen schreiben: alt aber neu. So bleibt nur, sich den folgenden Worten anzuschließen: Microsoft, please fix IE7 before it’s widely released, and you’ll be sure to receive heartfelt thanks from many formerly-frustrated developers out there. unitstep […]

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