Foley on Microsoft

IE8: Microsoft Thinks Different

From standards-compliance to testing, Microsoft is rethinking its strategy for the upcoming browser.

When it comes to Internet Explorer 8, it's not business as usual for Microsoft. The 'Softies have been doing more than a few things differently with their upcoming browser, most notably some rather quiet but important changes involving testing.

With IE8, Microsoft's browser team has admitted that it's not infallible. After years of flouting Web standards that other browser makers adhered to -- albeit to varying degrees -- Microsoft made standards compliance a priority with IE8. In fact, in a very non-Microsoft-like move, the IE team publicly flip-flopped on its plans to back standards. First, standards mode was going to be an option, but in the spring, Microsoft officials changed their minds and made it the default.

Second, the IE8 team has been blogging and interacting with the industry for the past few months. At the start of this year, the IE8 blog was a shell. When and if there were posts, they were in PR-speak. But in the ensuing months, IE team members took it up a notch, produced some useful entries and better engaged with developers and customers.

Third, the IE8 team got serious about testing. Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of the IE development team, was so intent on stepping up how Microsoft tested IE that he brought in 13-year Microsoft veteran Jason Upton, the guy who used to run all the testing for Windows. Upton helped run testing for Windows XP SP2, Windows Server 2003 SP1 and x64 Editions and Windows Vista, and then took over as head of testing for the IE team in 2007.

"Windows testing technologies are being used on IE8," Upton says. "The execution system is still really just a bunch of batch files. But you have to provision all of those with all the different Windows and test them at scale."

Even more than meeting the challenge of "writing great code that doesn't work" -- which Upton defines as the job of a tester -- Upton is focusing on something else that's new for the IE8 team: He's spearheading Microsoft's efforts to submit new test cases to standards bodies.

There's more to this seemingly ho-hum standards task than meets the eye. An early build of IE8 did manage to pass the Acid2 test back in December 2007. Acid2 is a test page maintained by the independent Web Standards Project group, which was written to help browser vendors ensure support for Web standards in their products. But does simply passing Acid2 mean a browser won't "break the Web" or be compatible with other standards-compliant browsers? I'm sure that some browser vendors might answer yes to one or both of those questions, but most of the IE8 team would disagree.

Instead of putting all its eggs in the Acid2-testing basket, Upton and his band of testers began building out a rapidly growing suite of test cases around specific Web standards. So far, almost all of their efforts have been focused on the World Wide Web Consortium's Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) 2.1 specification. As of September, the team had submitted 3,221 IE8 test cases to the CSS 2.1 working group.

Microsoft's hope is that by cutting out ambiguity in existing Web standards, it can better help developers get their pages and apps to work with the standards-compliant IE, as well as with other standards-compliant browsers. Upton believes one of the best ways to cut through this ambiguity is with a set of tests that help define how an implementation of a standard should actually work. In other words, one of Microsoft's goals is to provide its interpretation of how the cases test the CSS 2.1 support in IE8.

Is this just Acid2 avoidance? Upton claims it's not. "Acid2 picks an arbitrary set of cases," he says. "By the very nature of it, it excludes a bunch of things."

Microsoft has a tough road ahead getting developers to change their pages and sites to handle IE8's default "super-standards mode." It has a second difficult task trying to fix the remaining post-beta 2 bugs that cause so many of the sites I visit do not work properly without the "Compatibility Mode" button. The final IE8 is due by year's end, so we don't have to wait long to see how Microsoft's standards-compliance strategy impacts adoption.

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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