Microsoft yielding to IE standards pressure?

Redmond may be budging on its support for standards and on key missing features in Internet Explorer.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
3 min read
After a years-long drumbeat of developer complaints, Microsoft may finally be budging on its support for standards and on key missing features in its Internet Explorer browser.

Microsoft last month broke with a longstanding pledge and said it would release a new version of IE before its next major Windows upgrade. Security concerns catalyzed the shift in plans, and Microsoft has kept mum about any possible standards or feature upgrades that might accompany the security improvements.

But a source familiar with Microsoft's plans confirmed a Tuesday report on MicrosoftWatch that IE developers, who have code-named their project Rincon, are at work on non-security features and standards support, including tabbed browsing, support for IDN (Internationalized Domain Names), improved support for CSS 2 (Cascading Style Sheets) and PNG (Portable Network Graphics) transparencies.

MicrosoftWatch also reported that IE 7 will include a built-in news aggregator based on RSS, or Really Simple Syndication.

While Microsoft declined to answer any questions about IE 7, the company has repeatedly brought up the issue of IE 7 standards support on its developer-oriented blogs to solicit suggestions on what changes developers would like to see in the upcoming release of the browser. Without making any promises, leaders in the IE development team suggest that after years of inaction on World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards problems, Microsoft will finally clean up its act.

"Specific requests and descriptions of problems in the field help us tremendously in prioritizing what we need to do," Chris Wilson, Microsoft's lead program manager for the Web platform in IE, wrote in a March 9 blog titled "IE and Standards." "Microsoft does respond to customer demand; Web developers are our customers."

If the tenor of the comments posted in response to Wilson's blog item is any indication, Microsoft has a lot of angry customers.

"IE6 has stagnated since its release," wrote one of Wilson's more civil respondents. "More annoying than this stagnation has been the silence from Redmond regarding future releases and the support of standards. Aging documentation, no support forum, undocumented features--IE 6 has been a nightmare."

Developers' concerns about standards and feature support in the current version of IE are reflected in the browser team's current to-do list. Frequent complaints include IE's lack of tabbed browsing, which lets users keep multiple pages open within the same window; full support for CSS 2, a W3C recommendation that lets Web authors apply single style guides to multiple pages; and support for PNG transparencies, which provide a nonproprietary, unpatented way to create transparent images.

The Mozilla Foundation--whose highly successful Firefox browser many credit with lighting a fire under Microsoft's IE development work--hailed news of Microsoft's renewed attention to standards and features, but dismissed the idea that a souped-up IE could steal Firefox's fire.

"Let's remember that the reason for IE 7 is security," said Chris Hofmann, Mozilla's director of engineering. "That's what's driving people away from IE and focusing them on other browser solutions like Firefox. There's some tough work for Microsoft to do because content developers have come to rely on features that are insecure."

Hofmann specifically cited Microsoft's proprietary ActiveX API (application programming interface) for running Web-based programs on client computers; Microsoft's implementation of the DOM (Document Object Model), which lets scripts act on discrete elements of a Web page; and IE's security zone model.

"It's not about the features," Hofmann said. "But if they're going to do this major upgrade, they're not going to leave the feature set three years behind the other browsers."