Microsoft promises IE web-standards love
Developers, we're listening. Promise
Mix 09 Internet Explorer chief Dean Hachamovitch has committed Microsoft to standards and working with standards bodies, after years of going its own way on the browser.
Microsoft's IE general manager used the launch of IE 8 to tell Mix 09 that Microsoft would continue to engage with the web and developers on compatibility and promised that Microsoft is "listening."
IE 8 is the first version of Microsoft's browser to be compliant with some key industry standards: HTML and CSS. Hachamovitch made great play at Mix of the fact Microsoft's put IE 8 through more than 7,000 tests on CSS while IE 8 "starts HTML 5 support" - HTML 5 is, as yet, an unfinished spec.
Hachamovitch's words didn't convince everyone at what's supposedly a partisan show packed with Microsoft fans. On hearing Hachamovitch, one Twittered: "'Microsoft guy: "We are *committed* to standards!' ROFLMAO'" - rolling on the floor laughing my ass off. Others questioned the volume of tests, and whether Microsoft had picked the "right" tests.
Microsoft might be listening, but what's next in IE's standards magical journey is a mystery to anybody outside Microsoft - and probably a good number of people inside the company too.
Asked by The Reg whether Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) is on the roadmap given the level of popularity of SVG, which is supported in Firefox, Chrome, and Opera, coupled with Microsoft's recent enthusiasm for the W3C's work, Hachamovitch was not exactly equivocal.
"SVG is a fair one," Hachamovitch told us. "I think it's important to not just do SVG but have complete tests so SVG works the way developers want it to".
Ah, the test suite. There's the rub.
According to Hachamovitch, the reason SVG didn't make it in IE 8 along with other W3C standards is Microsoft wanted to do a "good job" on implementation. Some suspect Microsoft is holding off SVG because it's potentially competitive to the work in smooth 2D graphics presentation both in the browser and using the Silverlight browser plug-in.
"We used our time doing CSS 2.1 deeply and as completely as we could. It's more important to developers to do things in a complete and interoperable way than a little bit here and there," he said.
Just when it seemed like Microsoft could at least be considering SVG, though, Hachamovitch declined to go for the kill and say whether this will make the next cut of IE.
"You can go down W3C site and count different standards out there," he said. "A lot of folks are asking about SVG. There are a lot of folks asking about Canvas  and Smile [graphics code beloved of social networks]. There are about 80 plus standards out there. Even inside of SVG there's SVG 1.2 , SVG Tiny  - there are a lot of sub factions."
Hachamovitch added, though: "We understand that graphics is important."
Repairing past ways
It would be easy to see this as prevarication on the subject of SVG by pointing to the infinite number of sub specs and by playing a bureaucrat's card of citing the complexity of the process as a reason not to act. In this case, the burden of delivering a complete test suite to evaluate compatibility in as many different scenarios as possible for each and every spec.
According to Hachamovitch, though, Microsoft is repairing its past ways.
"In the '90s we though about: there's a spec and an implementation and all we need are two implementations, and if they work the same way, then that's good enough. But that's not good enough for developers, because there are two implementations but how do you know you've hit all the [test] cases," Hachamovitch said. "Going through and developing a complete test suite is responsible engineering."
Why this conversion to standards in IE 8 in the first place, when Microsoft could easily have continued bending web developers to its will using the force of its market share? Hachamovitch reckoned the world changed and that Microsoft saw this change coming. With IE 5.0, 5.5, and 6.0, the specs were "not full formed" and people weren't really using CSS.
"What changed was developers pushed the limits and developers got much more facile with the standards...in '05, '06, and '07 as people pushed the boundaries their expectations went up."
Some would agree Microsoft saw the world changing, but with the rise of things like XML and web services, saw the prospect of its power and relevance slipping away as developers began working across compliant browsers. Such a future would have seen the pool of new applications and resources for IE and Windows dry up.
Hachamovitch agreed Microsoft didn't have an option but to change. He just didn't quite go along with our thesis. "We said 'OK, we need to do right and finish out these more accurate and more faithful implementations,'" he said.
It was telling at Mix that Hachamovitch made repeated references to the amount of research Microsoft had done in studying users' browsing habits to explain the building of new features and functionality in IE 8. This is something Microsoft's been doing a lot on Windows 7, which will support IE 8 in the next code drop, Hachamovitch said during a meeting with press.
On features, though, the supposedly loyal Mix crowd appeared a little underwhelmed on IE 8. Some saw the browser as catching-up to rivals - particularly on having sandboxed sessions for tabs to help protect against crashes, and that are also found in Chrome. Digging deeper, it turned out, you only get separate sessions for three tabs - after that tabs start sharing again.
Hachamovitch reckoned that among Microsoft's data it found "most people" settle at three tabs, so IE 8's been "optimized for most common processes".
These are not good portends for IE 8. Most users don't care what browser they are running, which means it comes down to persuading developers to promote the browser via partners and add-ons.
Asked how he hoped to differentiate IE 8 against Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and a renewed Safari on Windows, Hachamovitch said Microsoft can gain by arguing the "real benefits" of IE 8. He inevitably pointed to things like the browser's click-jack protection, prevention of cross-site scripting as standard, performance, and the addition of Web Slices and Accelerators.
Interestingly, though, Mix Twitters dinged Microsoft for cherry picking features to make IE 8 "look good" while others thought Hachamovitch had been unfair on Firefox during his keynote. ®