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A standards truce in the browser war?

Some Web developers see signs of change at Microsoft after years of taking the giant to task over IE.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
6 min read
When Microsoft "technical evangelist" Robert Scoble complained in his blog about being snubbed at a Texas conference, he probably didn't think he was laying the groundwork for a truce in the long-running war over Web browser standards.

But the snub, from one of Microsoft's most vocal critics, the Web Standards Project (WaSP), snowballed through blog postings and public apologies to produce a little-noticed detente in the long-running feud between Microsoft and Web standards advocates. That has some developers hopeful the software giant is entering a new era of standards compliance.

A month ago, Microsoft entered into an unlikely partnership with WaSP, forming a joint task force to help Redmond get an array of software titles up to snuff on standards. The advocacy group, created in the late 1990s to goad Microsoft and then-rival Netscape into adhering to standards for Web programming, was known for often theatrical campaigns against Microsoft and its Internet Explorer browser.


What's new:
Microsoft appears to be moving toward accepting Web browser standards long supported by advocates such as the Web Standards Project.

Bottom line:
Web authors, who have spent inordinate amounts of time coding Web pages specifically to accommodate Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, say that a Microsoft shift toward standards will mean they spend far less time and money developing work-arounds to accommodate IE, and the Web as a whole will grow more quickly.

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"Weather forecast for Hell: Cold and colder today," Scoble wrote in his blog after news of the partnership broke. "Seriously, congrats to everyone involved. Hope this collaboration brings us some good stuff for developers."

Web developers and their clients took notice this week when it was reported that Microsoft's next browser, IE 7, would not pass a stringent standards test called Acid2.

But while the news led to vociferous griping on discussion forums around the Net, and to one widely blogged call by Windows IT Pro news editor Paul Thurrott for an IE boycott, the recent detente helps explain why WaSP was surprisingly nonplussed.

This is a dramatic shift. Developers--that is, Web authors--have been locked in a standards standoff with Microsoft for years. Seven years after WaSP launched, developers acknowledge some progress but complain that they're still coding browser-specific Web pages.

"Some colleagues and I launched the Web standards movement eight years ago precisely because we were wasting too much time--and charging our clients too much money--working around browser differences instead of focusing on brand and usability issues," said Jeffrey Zeldman, a WaSP founder who is no longer active in the group. "Years later, because of sometimes grossly imperfect standards compliance, we're still wasting time and money on browser work-arounds."

Peace on the standards front could have a significant impact on the Web. With its 90-percent share of the browser market, Microsoft has a virtual veto over what industry standards Web authors can rely on and what kind of content and presentation users encounter. If Microsoft hewed more closely to Web standards, developers and standards groups say the Web as a whole would grow more quickly--and more cheaply.

Real-world agreement on standards could let corporations and others with large Web presences save a bundle. Right now, discrepancies between browsers and the standards promulgated by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) often force Web developers to concoct elaborate work-arounds.

"The browser wars being waged on the standards level has caused so many problems, cost a lot of money, and worn down a lot of good people," said Molly Holzschlag, a prominent Web designer and standards advocate. "As it stands, a lot of development money goes into special development for IE. What's more, developers and companies not using standards end up costing lots of money over time because code has to be constantly rewritten, constantly reviewed to address all these concerns."

Many credit WaSP's actions with influencing browser evolution, including Netscape's decision to abandon its legacy browser code in favor of the Gecko engine that underlies today's increasingly successful Firefox browser.

But despite occasional "mission accomplished" declarations, the group made

the most noise with the online equivalent of street theater. In one example, WaSP launched the "Browse Happy" Web site urging people to switch from IE to alternatives it said were more secure, including the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox browser, Opera Software's browser and Apple's Safari.

Since the ceasefire, WaSP has dissociated itself from Browse Happy, transferring the site to WordPress, a provider of blogging software.

"The WaSP has helped provide sound advice, real-life customer experience and appropriate input to help our teams drive to the goal of standards compliance."
--Brian Goldfarb, product manager, Microsoft's Web Platform and Tools group

"A few WaSP members discussed the current environment and we decided to pass Browse Happy along--not give it up, mind you--as a goodwill gesture to Microsoft," said Holzschlag, a WaSP steering committee member. "To be very clear: They never asked us to do this, it was something we decided internally."

So why the thaw? Many credit Microsoft for shedding light on its oft-secretive development process through product managers' blogs. Those managers take comments from the public and often explain what's going on at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus.

That's how the WaSP relationship got started. In March, Scoble approached WaSP members, including Holzschlag, at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas.

Holzschlag initially rebuffed Scoble and his Microsoft colleagues. Soon after, Scoble complained about the snub in his blog. Holzschlag read Scoble's blog, and in the blog's comments section apologized. From there, she and Scoble began talking about ways WaSP and Microsoft could work together. Eventually, Scoble introduced Holzschlag to Microsoft developers working on Visual Studio, ASP.NET, IE, and other Web-related software titles.

An unlikely partnership was born.

"The WaSP has helped provide sound advice, real-life customer experience and appropriate input to help our teams drive to the goal of standards compliance," said Brian Goldfarb, product manager for Microsoft's Web Platform and Tools group. "We are very excited about how this relationship has progressed and with the resulting increased quality of our standards support across our products."

It's not quite as dramatic as Rick Blaine and Capt. Renault strolling into the desert at the end of "Casablanca," but it's a start. Goldfarb said WaSP convinced Microsoft to make Visual Studio 2005 and ASP.NET 2.0 conform by default with the W3C's XHTML 1.0 Transitional recommendation and WCAG accessibility guidelines. For developers, that means fewer Microsoft-specific workarounds. For end-users with disabilities, it means more accessible pages.

"From that initial engagement, the relationship has grown to help provide that same guidance and expertise across all products that influence the Web," Goldfarb said.

Microsoft's newly cordial relationship with standards advocates comes as the software giant prepares to release its long-awaited Vista operating system--formerly known as Longhorn--and the first major upgrade to Internet Explorer in years. A final release is scheduled for the second half of next year.

Still, Microsoft execs don't consider this a fundamental shift. The company, they argue, has traditionally led the Web on standards support.

"Having other implementations out there on par with IE and better is frankly kind of new," said Chris Wilson, lead program manager for Internet Explorer at Microsoft. "When we shipped IE 6, that was not the case. We were far ahead out there with the standards."

No one denies that Microsoft has sometimes led the charge in supporting Web standards. Some question, however, what motivates the company.

Critics argue that Microsoft embraced standards in early versions of IE as a way of catching up to Netscape, which had a massive lead. Then, when Microsoft had its own formidable lead, these critics suggest, the company strayed from standards support. That caused Web designers to code for IE specifically, rather than to standards that leveled the playing field for Microsoft when it was behind.

"I don't believe Microsoft as a company has ever changed its attitude of winning at all costs," said WaSP founder Zeldman. "I think it does what it needs to do to keep achieving that goal. Sometimes that means it supports standards, sometimes the opposite."