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Developers gripe about IE standards inaction

Web developers want to light a fire under Microsoft to get better standards support in the company's Internet Explorer browser, but they can't seem to spark a flame.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
8 min read
Web developers want to light a fire under Microsoft to get better standards support in the company's Internet Explorer browser, but they can't seem to spark a flame.

Gripes have mounted recently over support in IE 6 for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), a Web standard increasingly important to design professionals. Web developers and makers of Web authoring tools say the software giant has allowed CSS bugs to linger for years, undermining technology that promises to significantly cut corporate Web site design costs.

Seeking to goad Microsoft into action, digital document giant Adobe Systems last week unveiled a deal to bolster support for CSS in its GoLive Web authoring tool with technology from tiny Web browser maker Opera Software, whose chief technology officer first proposed CSS nine years ago. Opera maintains an active role in developing CSS through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

But standards advocates said it was unclear whether Adobe's action could prod Microsoft into better CSS support, given the lack of browser competition.

"Because it owns the marketplace, Microsoft's under very little pressure to fix remaining IE 6 bugs," said Jeffrey Zeldman, an independent Web developer and cofounder of the Web Standards Project. "When it formed this partnership with Opera, Adobe may have wanted to light a fire under IE, but lots of people have wanted to do that and have not been able to."

In the 1990s, Microsoft won the browser war over Netscape Communications and secured a monopoly for IE through a strategy of co-opting technology, an approach critics dubbed "embrace, extend, extinguish." With market share locked up, the company appears content to rest on its laurels, said critics, who complain that Microsoft has failed to keep pace with browser standards despite repeated pleadings.

Complaints over Microsoft's CSS support come amid broader criticisms that improvements in browser technology have slowed to a glacial pace since the software giant crushed credible competition in the market--an outcome that some view as ironic given Microsoft's cries during the antitrust trial that court-mandated restraints on its ability to bundle applications would stifle innovation.

"While it is true that our implementation is not fully, 100 percent W3C-compliant, our development investments are driven by our customer requirements and not necessarily by standards," said Greg Sullivan, a lead product manager with the Windows client group.

When it was pointed out that the most vocal critics of IE's CSS support are Web developers and authoring tool makers, rather than standards bodies, Sullivan said those critics were comparatively few.

"We balance feedback from all our customers and make our development decisions based on meeting the requirements of all of our customers, not just a few of them," Sullivan said.

A backward browse
Microsoft has not always neglected CSS. In 1999, the company was awarded a patent on the technology, which it has disclosed to the W3C and offered for free, licensed use--provided licensees agree to a mutual patent nonaggression pact with respect to the technology.

More recently, the software giant has backed off browser development on several key fronts.

Microsoft in May indicated it was ending development of its standalone browser in favor of devoting resources to its new operating system, code-named Longhorn, which will have built-in Web browsing capabilities.

CSS resources

Standards: The W3C
  CSS home page
  CSS Level 1
  CSS Level 2
  CSS Level 3
  CSS validator to check code against the standard

How-tos and demos
  Eric Meyer's CSS resource guide
  CSS tutorial
  CSS demonstration site
CSS Zen Garden

The vendors
  Opera 7 CSS support
  Microsoft's CSS page
Microsoft Developer Network
  Mozilla guide to writing CSS
  Macromedia's CSS topic center

In June, responding to Apple Computer's decision to launch its own browser, Safari, Microsoft said it was ending development of IE for the Mac operating system.

That combination of events, coupled with the implosion of AOL Time Warner's Netscape browser development efforts, has left Microsoft with little motivation to keep its browser up to date or to repair bugs in its implementation of the CSS standards, critics said.

Microsoft counters that it holds no lock on browsers, despite routine estimates that IE accounts for more than 90 percent of the market. Sullivan pointed to Adobe's choice of Opera as evidence that meaningful competition persists.

Microsoft has given few hints of its plans for the browser within Longhorn, where the company could see major benefits from the browser as it more tightly integrates software applications into the OS and its .Net Web services plan. That could lead to a flurry of new features aiming to leverage the browser.

Microsoft could also use browser enhancements, such as better CSS support, as an incentive for customers to upgrade to Longhorn.

Sullivan said that future browser updates would be distributed "as part of broader updates and service packs to the OS."

But he declined to say whether developers could expect to see improvements to the browser's CSS support, or what kind of browser updates the new Longhorn operating system might offer. Sullivan said the company would start revealing some of those details at the end of this month at the company's Professional Developers Conference 2003 in Los Angeles.

In the past, Microsoft has floated trial balloons for various proprietary browser-related features. Some of those efforts have sparked accusations of inappropriate bundling of the browser and OS. In one example, Microsoft aborted a plan to link keywords appearing in the browser window to favored Web sites.

Cue up Opera
Regardless of Microsoft's future plans, Web authoring tool makers Adobe and Macromedia are hoping to pressure the company into improving CSS support in IE now, enlisting the aid of Opera to bring enhanced CSS support in products used to automate many aspects of Web site design.

Adobe last week said it is using Opera browsing technology in its GoLive Web authoring tool, under a deal struck quietly this summer. Before the launch of GoLive Creative Suite, Adobe was coding its browser rendering engine the old-fashioned way--by hand. The rendering engine does the browser's heavy lifting, representing images and text in the window.

"Creative professionals want to stretch the technology as far as they can to maximize their design capabilities," said Mark Asher, group product manager for Adobe Web authoring tool GoLive and the graphics editor Illustrator. "What's going to happen is that by using Opera, people are going to start demanding that IE and other browsers start accommodating CSS Level 2. The difference should be significant enough to push Microsoft into better CSS support."

CSS has gained in popularity for a number of reasons. By letting developers specify design elements that apply to any number of individual pages, CSS makes Web pages more flexible, easier to change en masse and lighter by half.

The end result, developers say, is Web sites that are not only faster to load, but cheaper to build and maintain.

Macromedia, whose Dreamweaver tool leads the high end of the market, with Microsoft's FrontPage software dominating the low end, joined Adobe in expressing hope that, by reflecting the demand for CSS standards compliance it hears from designers, it could "light a fire" under Microsoft to fix IE's CSS problems. Macromedia, too, uses Opera technology to preview Dreamweaver edits, but only on its Mac version.

"We added a lot of support for CSS in our release, and Adobe did too," said Jen Taylor, product manager for Macromedia's Dreamweaver authoring tool. "And we're hoping that by furthering these standards we are going to force (Microsoft) to make the kinds of changes in the browser that they need to in order to support these technologies."

Opera sounded an ambivalent note on the prospect that its distribution in the authoring tools would result in better standards support in IE.

"We're not trying to help Microsoft make a better product, but I suppose that could be a byproduct of this," said Dean Kakridas, Opera's vice president of sales for North America. "We do hope the rest of the world follows suit, because CSS will continue to evolve, and we'll be at the forefront of it."

Changes in attitudes
Standards advocates might find themselves surprised to be looking to the authoring toolmakers as their champions. Not long ago, Adobe, Macromedia and Microsoft were the advocates' main target, as the browser market calcified into a reasonably standards-complaint status quo and the Web became increasingly populated by tool-authored, nonstandard code.

One usability expert applauded the change in attitude by the toolmakers, saying CSS would both benefit from and accelerate that shift.

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"It's healthy to have multiple competitors in the market, and healthy for the Web designers to remember that there are different browsers out there, because that brings home the point that different users need different things," said Jakob Nielsen, a former Sun Microsystems engineer who now runs the Nielsen Norman Group, a usability consultancy in Emeryville, Calif. "You need to design in a flexible manner, and the emphasis on CSS (by the toolmakers) is a positive step in that direction."

"There's been very little development in Web browsers the last several years," Nielsen added. "It would be nice to reignite that."

Developers and toolmakers disagree on the degree to which Adobe and Macromedia can influence Microsoft's decisions with respect to CSS or other IE development.

One authority in CSS, a former Netscape engineer now advising companies on their use of the technology, expressed hope that Adobe's deal with Opera could advance CSS and spur changes to IE.

"This does make for a potential shift in the way sites are developed," said Eric Meyer, an independent consultant based in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and author of four books on CSS. "GoLive users will get used to what Opera does, and may start to perceive Explorer as being more of an outdated and frustrating browser to deal with. It could lead to an interesting change in perception on the part of Web developers and Web authors."

But Zeldman warned against wishful thinking, noting that with hundreds of millions of people using Internet Explorer around the world, it would take more than CSS-savvy developers like him and Microsoft's toolmaker competitors to persuade Microsoft to tend to a battleground it no longer considers contested.

I'm not saying (IE) is not a very good browser--it is," Zeldman said. "But its CSS support is weaker and buggier than its competitors. We hoped for many years that by submitting bug reports, they would improve it. But they didn't."