Foley on Microsoft

Compliance vs. Compatibility

After all the hard lessons it learned from IE, which one will Microsoft pick?

Microsoft screwed up with Internet Explorer (IE). And I'm not just talking about its decision to wait five years between IE6 and IE7. I'm referring to the position Microsoft established years ago -- that interoperability and standards adherence aren't all that important.

Ignorant, arrogant and short-sighted -- Microsoft's decision to let standards take a back seat was all of those things. Even the IE leadership agrees. Now the company is paying for the error of its ways. It's a painful process.

The IE team leaders have become serious about standards. They're so serious that they've brought on Web standards maven Molly Holzschlag to help dig IE, and other units within Microsoft's Web Platform and Tools division, out of their self-made standards hole.

Holzschlag is advising Microsoft on how to make products like IE and Expression Studio more standards-compliant. If there's sufficient time and interest, she's also telling them to work on products like Outlook 2007, which, because of a change to the IE rendering engine, is breaking many e-mail newsletters and Web sites.

She's also working with other vendors, including browser vendors, in an attempt to get everyone at the table to "put their knives down" long enough to make some progress with interoperability, Holzschlag told me recently.

The outspoken and well-spoken Holzschlag is definitely the right person for the job. She's got the standards scars and thick skin to prove it.

But why does Microsoft need an advisor like Holzschlag? Why can't the Redmondians simply flip the standards switch and make IE compliant with all, most or at least some of the standards with which Firefox, Opera, Safari and other browsers already comply?

"The problem is, the Web is already broken," Holzschlag says. "We had a cross-platform, cross-browser [world] for one year."

As other Microsoft officials have noted, with half a billion users already, Microsoft can't make changes to IE willy-nilly without breaking lots of Web pages. Which is worse: a browser that's less than 100 percent standards-compliant, or a browser that is standards-compliant but wreaks havoc on the Web sites of developers who had no choice but to adhere to the IE guidelines when coding their sites for IE users?

Microsoft is between a rock and a hard place of its own making on this one. It's damned if it fixes IE to make it more compliant with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) 2.1 layout, cross-browser object-model and other standards, as those changes will break a lot of software and many sites that have been tuned to work with Microsoft's non-standards-based code. It's also damned if it doesn't make IE more standards-based, as a growing number of developers, designers and users are insisting on standards when making their buying and/or development decisions.

I'm not even going to touch the thorny issue of what counts as a standard in the Web world. CSS 2.1 is a spec that has yet to be ratified, although it's the coding target for many developers. CSS 3.0 seemingly is the future, but remains "unrecommended."

So what's a penitent browser vendor to do as it seeks to make amends for its past transgressions? At the MIX07 conference last month, Microsoft officials floated a trial balloon. What if Microsoft were to require developers and authors to "opt in" to standards mode when designing IE8-and-beyond sites and products? Holzschlag called the proposal "interesting," and said that like the IE team itself, she still isn't sure how or if this kind of opt-in mode would be implemented.

What would you do if you were part of the IE team? Although it would be painful and potentially confusing to consumers, would it make sense for Microsoft to simultaneously release one "standards-compliant" and one "backward-compatible" version of IE8, IE9 and beyond to get out of this jam?

Where do you stand on this trade-off of compliance versus compatibility? Should Microsoft err on the side of standards or backward compatibility? What suggestions would you make for ways that Microsoft can minimize customers' and developers' pain as it finally does the right thing, in terms of turning IE into a modern browser?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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