IE 5.5 angers Web standards advocates

Microsoft comes under fire from standards advocates over its latest browser, which lets Web developers offer visitors fairly complex applications--as long as those visitors aren't using Netscape.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
5 min read
Microsoft came under fire today from Web standards advocates over its latest browser, which lets Web developers offer their visitors fairly complex applications with the flick of the wrist--as long as those visitors aren't using Netscape.

Microsoft's newly released Internet Explorer 5.5 browser introduces shortcuts for Web developers that make adding page elements, such as calendars, as easy as inserting a tag. On top of that, Microsoft's adherence to basic industry standards for Web technologies as basic as HTML--often called the Web's lingua franca--has been called into question by standards advocates.

Together, the proprietary innovation and the purported faults in standards compliance mean that Web pages created to work for IE--widely considered to be the dominant browser--won't work with browsers from Netscape, Opera Software and other providers.

As if to illustrate the predicament, the download page for version 5.5 came up blank for Netscape users yesterday and this morning. Microsoft has since fixed the problem.

Microsoft's proprietary shortcuts came under fire from the Web Standards Project (WaSP), an advocacy group that formed to goad software companies to adhere closely to World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recommendations. WaSP project leader Jeffrey Zeldman urged developers to reconsider before adopting such technologies.

"We hope that developers will consider carefully whether it is worth taking advantage of today's shortcut (which works only in one browser) or holding out for methods that will work in all browsers," he wrote.

The new shortcuts are part of what Microsoft calls Dynamic HTML (DHTML) behaviors. Dynamic HTML is a marketing term used by Microsoft and other software companies to group various Web technologies and W3C recommendations--including Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), scripting languages such as JavaScript, and HTML.

"Behaviors" is Microsoft's term for its method of attaching certain characteristics and functions to elements within a Web page--such as formatting, boundary-checking, color or the magnification of a graphic as the mouse passes over it.

DHTML behaviors have been a part of IE since version 5.0 was previewed more than two years ago.

But IE 5.5 offers a souped-up variety, dubbed "element behaviors," that let Web authors ascribe characteristics to Web page elements with greater specificity. The way it was before, a DHTML "attribute" behavior, for instance the color red, could spill over from the calendar toolbar it was meant to modify to the calendar page itself.

Another modification of behaviors in IE 5.5 is the introduction of the ViewLink. This technology lets Web authors "encapsulate" and separate elements from documents, providing the programming shortcut that lets authors insert the DHTML calendar, for example, simply by adding the tag "<cal>."

New Flash components
Macromedia, whose Flash animation technology is the de facto standard for lightweight vector graphics on the Web, seized on the new behavior technology and has created Flash components based on it. The new method lets Flash more easily and tightly integrate with Web pages, interacting with the page in the same way as regular HTML elements.

The advancement of DHTML behaviors, especially with the simplification of Flash authoring, may tempt Web developers. But there is some concern that the widespread adoption of IE's new proprietary technologies will contribute to the degradation of Web standards, in which browsers and Web pages that adhere to commonly accepted industry standards--specifically those recommended by the W3C--are interoperable with each other.

"Dependence by users on proprietary technologies in a Web-based production environment does not support the Web," W3C representative Janet Daly said in an email interview. "Users frequently suffer when relying on proprietary technology that is not available across browsers, or even different platforms for the same browser. Companies are best advised to implement W3C specs and work on the development of new ones."

Macromedia defended its implementation of Microsoft's proprietary technology, saying it was taking advantage of the technology offered by "the dominant browser platform."

"We're not trying to deny use to the 20 percent of the market using Netscape," said Tom Hale, senior vice president of product marketing. "We are not trying to help any particular browser dominate. We're trying to provide a good experience for the end user and for the author. But this is the kind of application that if people want to create it, they need to understand that they're going to require this browser to have it work."

Hale referred to a recent survey showing IE with 86 percent of the browser market.

Microsoft also countered the W3C, as it has in the past, by saying that it innovates by shipping products first and works to define standards that will be established later.

"No company is going to wait"
"Standards committees work on their own schedule," said Rebecca Norlander, group program manager for IE. "No company is going to want to wait until the standards bodies are through. In order to drive new technologies into the standards bodies, you have to continue innovating. I hear (Daly's) point, but I'm responsible to my customers and so are the Netscape folks."

But WaSP's Zeldman said that such new technologies should not come at the cost of open standards.

"While we admire innovation--and today's innovation may be tomorrow's standard--we fear that by delivering DHTML shortcuts before giving us the W3C Document Object Model (DOM), Microsoft is encouraging developers to code Microsoft's way, instead of according to open standards," Zeldman wrote.

The DOM, a work in progress at the W3C, lets scripts act independently on individual elements of a Web page.

Work on a standard for a "behavior"-type technology is under way at the W3C--and has been for some time. Both Microsoft and Netscape have submitted notes and proposals on the matter: Netscape in its Action Sheets note, and Microsoft in its "DHTML behaviors" submission.

The two companies' proposals are in the process of being synthesized in a newly restaffed working group, according to the W3C. An August 1999 draft of a specification, "Behavioral Extensions to CSS," is co-authored by Netscape, Microsoft and the French power utility Electricité de France.

But Netscape's proposal appears to be diverging from Microsoft's technology in crucial respects.

Netscape recently submitted what it calls an "extension" to its "Action Sheet" note, dubbed Extensible Binding Language (XBL).

WaSP takes Microsoft to task
"In contrast to Microsoft's 'Behaviors,' XBL is compatible with both XML and HTML whereas 'Behaviors' is just compatible with HTML," a Netscape representative said in an email interview. Netscape is a unit of America Online.

The WaSP also took Microsoft to task, as it has in the past, for its spotty adherence to W3C recommendations, singling out IE 5.5's implementation of CSS and HTML for criticism.

Microsoft has long stated its commitment to following industry standards, including CSS and HTML. But preliminary data collected by the WaSP showed that IE 5.5 performs poorly against compliance tests, failing 7 out of 13 in the case of CSS.

"Many of the problems originally noted in IE 4 remain unfixed in IE 5.5," Zeldman wrote. "The company has delivered interesting new technology, but has not finished the job on the Web standards it already supports (somewhat incompletely), and has not committed to a timeline for delivering those missing pieces, or for fully supporting XML and the DOM."

Microsoft was not immediately available to respond to the WaSP's criticisms.