Monday, March 24, 2008

MS Idealists Gaining Ground

I recently commented to friends that the continual shunning of web standards by Microsoft's Internet Explorer team would surely lead to the demise of that browser in the long run. My point was that as other browsers gain market share, I think more sites will follow the standards. It seems self-destructive to be non-compliant. My thoughts were prompted by the release of the Acid3 test, which the beta of IE8 scores a whopping 18% on. The result of my comment was a brief debate that left me with an altered opinion on the state of Microsoft.

My friend referred to an article by Joel on Software. With the danger of blogging on bloggers fully recognized, I do have some comments. Joel seems to ignore a few things in his discussion of the difficulties of choosing standards (such as those measured by Acid) versus compatibility (with IE7) mode for the new IE. First, an easy solution does exist. Simply return a different string for the browser name when asked. User agent detection code in existing web sites searches for the string, "MSIE". It'd be pretty easy for version 8 to return "MicrosoftIE" or any of the 1000 variations you can think of. Then those sites looking to include the new version just update their script, while the majority of sites that would break with the newly more compliant browser treat it as an unknown standard browser.

Second, Joel bemoans the triumph of the "Idealists" when in fact it is a good thing. It should have happened when Windows 95 came out. MS tried to maintain backward compatibility with 3.1 at the expense of quality (and to sidetrack OS/2). Then, the NT kernel was supposed to eliminate the DOS layer from the consumer Windows, but this did not happen until a decade later with Vista. 

Look at Apple as a counterpoint. They have effectively abandoned their entire installed base (OS 9 "classic" apps don't work on OS X.5), switched to a new hardware platform, and with the latest OS X introduced a number of API's that will quickly make it the standard for new applications. Their numbers are up to the point that in February 2008, Apple captured 25% of the PC market by revenue. The great improvements in Macs have come from a willingness to stick to the "Ideal", and that is in a niche market.

Apple Mac share of web surfers for two years.

If Microsoft had maintained technological integrity, it could have deployed better operating systems with less regard to old software. Certainly the monopoly OS has the ability to deploy standards and have people come around. They have done this repeatedly by "embracing and extending" industry standards. The same philosophy of breaking interoperability could be used for nice (technological advancement) rather than naughty (monopoly maintenance). Stop selling XP, and Vista will catch on inevitably.

The third thing the article ignores is the fact that, for the most part the "bugs" he talks about were intentionally put into IE 7 and before in order to differentiate it and build its market share. Why people cared back then whose browser people ended up using is beyond me, but the war was so hard fought that standards were ignored, and web developers have paid the price for last decade and more. It makes perfect sense for people to be fed up with coding browser specific hacks to get a site working. Code to the standards and let the "buggy" browsers wither on the vine.

No comments: