IE9 - the big questions and Microsoft's half answers

Will it SMIL? Yesnomaybe

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“HTML5 will enable a new class of applications,” says Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's Internet Explorer general manager, speaking to the press at the company's Mix10 conference in Las Vegas.

But exactly what parts of HTML5 will the company support? And what will happen when changes are made as the standard evolves? Hachamovitch tends to avoid straight answers, but still gave some insight into the company’s approach.

“When you release a platform you make a promise to developers that the code that they wrote will continue to run,” he says. “The only time you’re allowed to break that promise is a trust issue: privacy, security, safety.”

So how do you change behavior when the specification is amended? “One thing you notice when you run the IE9 platform preview is that there are all these modes listed there. Those modes are there because there are sites built expecting the promise."

Hachamovitch plays a game with the press when he is quizzed about specific HTML5 features that are not in the current IE9 preview. What about the Canvas element? “All the graphics that run in IE9 are GPU-powered, they are hardware accelerated. We said there’ll be updates to the preview and we’ll see what else is coming in the next preview.” So that’s a maybe.

How about SMIL, the animation standard that works in conjunction with SVG (which is supported)? “There’s a lot of overlap and a lot of redundancy with CSS3 animations and transitions,” he says. “There’s a lot of discussion in the SVG working group ... developers want to have one consistent set of patterns that they reuse. The feedback I’ve seen is that CSS3 is a more dominant pattern, and the SMIL stuff less so.” In other words, probably not.

What about video codecs, a contentious issue which has left the Video tag without any officially standardized codec? “For IE9, the demonstration that we gave involved the H.264 codec, which is a great industry standard for video, and we will support the H.264 codec.” says Hachamovitch. Other codecs, like the open source Ogg Theora? He says nothing, but the signs are not good. He even adds, “If I made a list of all the things for the HTML5 spec to do next, it’s not clear that the HTML5 video codec would be near the top.”

The IE9 preview does a better job with the Acid3 standards test than earlier versions, but at 55 per cent, it remains poor, considering that some other browsers pass completely. Is 100 per cent a goal? Hachamovitch is defensive.

“The Acid3 test is something that some folks use as a proxy for standards support. It’s 100 tests. It exercises about a dozen different technologies, some of which are under construction, some of which are less under construction. The most important thing: as IE9 supports more of the markup that developers actually use, the score will continue to go up, as a side effect.”

He positions Microsoft as pragmatic. “The end, that we’re all trying to get to, is that developers can use the same markup everywhere. There are a variety of means of getting there. I talked about using data to find what developers are actually using to make that work.”

One of the puzzles of HTML is the tension between browser makers dreaming up features that later may get standardized, and standards committees pumping out specifications for browser makers to implement. In the worst case you get something like Netscape’s LAYER tag, introduced in 1997 but which never became part of the W3C standard. Has the world changed since then?

“You could say that the world hasn’t changed. There are a variety of browser vendors that have gone ahead and done stuff and said: ‘Well, we’ve done this, here you go.’” says Hachamovitch. “On the other hand I’ll say that the world has changed, because our approach is to work much more closely with these standards guys, in order to minimize surprises and maximize interoperability.”

And no, Windows XP will not be supported by IE9. “Building a modern browser requires a modern operating system,” he says. “There are facilities in Windows Vista and Windows 7 around security, for example the integrity-level work that gave us protected mode. There are performance improvements, there is graphics infrastructure to take advantage of the GPU, that doesn’t exist in previous operating systems.”

What this means is that Internet Explorer will not deliver on the “same markup everywhere” dream - at least until XP is obsolete. Bearing in mind that some new machines still ship with Windows XP today, developers face a long wait.

Another question that Hachamovitch is frequently asked concerns Silverlight. Does the overlap between HTML5 and Silverlight, for features such as video and animation, imply that Microsoft might eventually move away from the plug-in approach?

“Every browser has some moral equivalent to ActiveX, a set of binary APIs that enable other code to run. To me that’s part of building a browser, you accept that there is a need for plug-ins,” he says. “Developers choose what technology to use. Developers who want to use the exact same markup across browsers and devices, choose to use a plug-in today.”

The truth is that even if IE9 proves to be an excellent platform for HTML5 applications, a plug-in like Silverlight will solve deployment problems because it spans multiple browsers and runs on Windows XP. Another factor is that Microsoft’s tooling in Visual Studio is geared towards Silverlight rather than HTML5. If there is a move away from plug-ins for rich internet applications, it will not be a speedy one on Microsoft’s platform. ®

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