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Untitled | by Chris Hester
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The Browser Wars are back. This time it's Internet Explorer 8 against all other browsers. Microsoft want to introduce a line of code to freeze a website to work with one of its browsers. And they want other browser firms to do the same. The problem is that it will lock sites into ancient versions of browsers, which won't need to ever be updated. And each new browser release will have to feature several versions of itself in order to render such sites! OK, so if IE8, due 2008 for beta release, defaulted to rendering in its most capable mode, at least that would be a move forward. But no! They want to default to IE7 mode! Naturally many leading experts are not happy about this. In fact, there's been so much opposition to this whole idea from the web coding community, I'd be amazed if the idea isn't dropped. (Except that secret talks have been going on for a year to agree to it with some key web standards people involved.)


All this could lead to an "IE Web" where if you don't render to Microsoft's way, your site may not be okay. Of course the real way forward is to code to web standards, which the IE5 and IE6 browsers made a mess of. This means your site works well in most modern browsers, with only a few tweaks required. But IE liked to be different, resulting in no end of hair-pulling-out by developers who still face the worst problem with IE - bugs. These have to be coded round, with extra code and so much more development time required. Sure, other browsers have bugs too, but they don't tend to be as bad.


IE wouldn't have been a problem had Microsoft kept updating it. But after IE6, development ceased for five years! In that time other browsers marched on, eventually threatening IE's market share. Microsoft saw this and brought out IE7 to fix a lot of bugs. (Alas also introducing some new ones.) Despite the horrible interface, standards-wise it was better than ever. And IE8 will introduce a lot of interesting new things, such as generated content. The problem is twofold: Firstly, other browsers like Opera have had these features for years. Secondly, not many people will use the new stuff if IE8 defaults to IE7 mode! And even if it didn't, a lot of people are still using IE6, so it will be years before IE8 is the majority browser in use.


The sad fact is that IE runs on a very tired rendering engine dating back to the 90's that can't possibly be patched indefinitely. Netscape, its main rival in the past, was rewritten using the Gecko engine, eventually leading to Firefox. The reason was to get rid of old bugs and deliver a program aimed at new developments on the web, such as XHTML and XML. IE has never been rewritten from scratch to work with today's web, which is why it can be a slower and more flaky experience. If they add more and more code to work with older versions, it may also become hopelessly bloated. And many developers have expressed concern over how the browser will cope with documents compiled from various sources, all requiring different rendering versions.


The outcry against Microsoft's plans for IE8 is almost unprecedented. It also reeks of an agenda to retake control of the web, to cause problems for other browser makers and to stagnate existing sites, locked to certain browser versions forever. Apparently there was a lot of complaint against IE7 "breaking" older sites, including many important ones who I assume did not code fully to standards, but to what worked in IE6. I see this all the time at work, with sites which don't work completely in other browsers. But if the developers updated their code, then the sites will work fine. Using web standards actually helps to achieve this, and you should always test your sites in as many different browsers as you can.


So what to do. Protest! Send a clear message to Microsoft that many developers are NOT happy with their plans. Yes, the browser wars may be back. We've all been there before, seen and done it, but have you bought the t-shirt? Well now you can! Or at least preview some here! I came up with a range of suitable t-shirt designs, mocked up for your pleasure. (Or displeasure if you work for Microsoft!) I know it may seem an angry response, but I felt it had to be done.

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Taken on February 2, 2008