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Microsoft: Old Internet Explorer is terrible and 'we want to help'

New tools help web devs find problem spots

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As every web developer knows, one of the biggest headaches of building modern, standards-compliant web pages is getting them to look and work right in Internet Explorer. Well, coders, apparently Microsoft feels your pain, because it has released a new set of free tools to help you do just that.

The tools, collectively dubbed modern.IE, offer various ways of testing websites to verify compatibility with versions of Internet Explorer new and old, going all the way back to the dreaded IE6.

"We recognize that customers on older versions of IE continue to be a real challenge for developers testing their sites, particularly for those developers on non-Windows devices," wrote Ryan Gavin, Redmond's GM for Internet Explorer, in a blog post announcing the tools. "We want to help."

The top modern.IE tool is a free online code scanner that will parse a site's HTML and issue alerts for any outstanding problems that could affect how it renders, both in older versions of IE and in modern browsers.

Issues flagged by the scanner include code that trips known old-IE quirks, code that causes newer versions of IE to revert to Compatibility Mode, outdated JavaScript frameworks and libraries that could be incompatible with newer browsers, and sites that lack a proper DocType, which can cause them to render incorrectly.

The tool also recommends ways in which developers can redesign their sites to better support newer screen sizes and device form factors ­– including phones, fondleslabs, and large widescreen displays – by using responsive web design techniques.

And last but not least, it also offers a friendly suggestion that devs make sure to tweak their websites to work the Microsoft Way™ – including replacing Flash with HTML5, making sure pages are touch-friendly, and adding Windows 8 Start Screen tiles to sites so they're easier to navigate to from Microsoft's latest OS.

"The wizard doesn't offer a complete checklist for coding the modern web, but it is intended to focus on the things that can make a real difference in the overall user experience," Gavin observed.

Developers who are looking for more thorough testing can also benefit from the modern.IE effort. In addition to the code scanner, Microsoft is promoting two methods coders can use to verify their sites against actual browsers running inside virtual machines.

For developers who have the wherewithal to manage their own virtual test beds, Redmond has made available a set of virtual machine images containing prebuilt test environments for various versions of IE running on Windows.

So, for example, developers can test their sites against IE6 running on Windows XP, IE7 running on Windows Vista, or IE8 running on Windows 7, without the hassle of installing the OS and downloading all of the relevant Service Packs and updates.

For now, the VMs are only compatible with Microsoft's own Hyper-V virtualization technology for Windows Server and Windows 8 Pro, but the modern.IE site says VMs for Linux and OS X are coming soon.

Developers who want even more comprehensive virtualization-based testing have one further option. Microsoft has partnered with BrowserStack to offer three free months of the company's online service, which lets coders test their sites against a comprehensive set of desktop and mobile browsers using a single, web-based UI. The catch? You have to sign in with your Facebook account to activate your free trial.

In addition to these tools, the modern.IE website includes a variety of tips and suggestions on how to code websites the modern way – not to mention plugs for IE10, the latest version of Microsoft's browser, which Redmond swears has given up its old, sinful ways and is all about web standards now.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, however, the web-surfing public may have been burned one too many times by older versions of IE. According to StatCounter, Internet Explorer lost its status as the world's most widely used browser sometime in 2012, and its market share still appears to be in decline.

The new King of the Web? Google Chrome – a browser that has been tooting the horn of web standards compliance from the very beginning. The phrase "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" comes to mind. ®

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