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Here We Go Again

By WaSP Member | April 11th, 2000 | Filed in Opinion

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On 27 March, we hailed Microsoft for shipping IE 5/Mac, the first browser to Do The Right Thing with HTML and CSS. Naturally, this pleased our Microsoft friends, while convincing thousands that we were whores of Redmond.

On 10 April, we flamed Microsoft for previewing IE 5.5/Windows, a browser that strikes out on complete support for any standard. Instead, using that “freedom to innovate” that Microsoft spokesmen praise on the courtroom steps, IE 5.5 takes a bold leap toward the future by implementing colored scrollbars. Also some other proprietary goodies that work only in Windows. Oddly enough, we haven’t heard any official comment from our former buds, except for a halfassed load of flackery from their spin-off PR company, Waggner-Edstrom.

It looks like our opinion only matters when it’s wearing a happy-face.

Well, Microsoft, we’ll be delighted to dig out those happy-faces and wish you a thousand years of peace and prosperity; just remember that complete support for W3C standards is Job 1. Quit before the job’s done, and the flamethrower’s the only answer. Because that’s our job. We speak for thousands of Web developers, and through them, millions of Web users.

Microsoft claims, wearing a straight face, that delivering “most” of a given standard does the job. Wrong! Putting up “most” of a fence does not protect your privacy. Putting up “most” of a firewall doesn’t keep the crackers out. We, the people who build real Web sites for real customers, need complete implementations of basic standards – technology we would have had years ago, if not for the browser wars and the deformed thinking they engendered.

(What do we mean by “deformed thinking?” Believing that the Internet is a space anyone can “own,” instead of a worldwide collaborative medium that belongs to everyone. That’s what we mean. Believing that it’s more important to “win at any cost” than to win bigger by getting on board with the open spirit that gave birth to the Internet and the Web. That’s what we mean.)

We’re particularly frosted over Microsoft’s bypassing support for the Document Object Model (DOM), which gives programmers access to the data found in HTML and XML documents. Don’t these guys remember that they helped build this thing? A paranoid would think that they fear the power of the DOM in the hands of Web developers, so they’re not letting us have it. (Andy Grove says it’s okay to be paranoid.) In addition, they seem to fear the power of XML and CSS combined, the true separation of structure and display. What are you afraid of, Microsoft? That you’ll turn over control of the desktop to developers? What else is it there for?

Microsoft thinks we blame them for war in Bosnia, starvation in Africa, and the fragmented state of the Web. The last is not true! Netscape started this mess, by moronically making up tags for every little thing you might want to do on a Web page, never even bothering to check out the W3C recommendations. Microsoft came to the party late, but it came talking about standards, and did a better job of supporting them than Netscape.

For years, now, Microsoft has done a better job than Netscape at supporting standards.

Which is why we’re so mad at Microsoft’s stated intention to build proprietary technologies and experimental implementations of half-baked working drafts before finishing up standards which have been around for years – including CSS-1, which has been frozen since the mesolithic era (1996 to be precise).

Microsoft seems to forget that we beat up on Netscape for its 4.0 browser. Our CSS experts refused to review Netscape’s laughable implementation of Style Sheets.

They forget that we organized a petition drive demanding that Netscape not release a 5.0 browser unless it was rebuilt using standards-oriented technology, rather than the hideous code-tumor that still lurks under the covers of Netscape 4.anything. Netscape took us literally: they not only began building a browser based on Gecko, they apparently decided never to release a browser labeled “5.0.”

Okay, to be fair, there still isn’t anything like a commercially available Netscape browser. And the “interesting” beta version Netscape showed the world last week is unlikely to win many converts. But at least they’re saying they’re going to try to do the right thing. And suddenly, Microsoft is not.

If we’re giving Microsoft a hard time now, it’s because we hope that, like Netscape, they can be persuaded to change. After all, Netscape was once every bit as arrogant as Microsoft is today. We’re protesting in the hope that Redmond will see the light and finish up at least CSS-1 and HTML 4.0 before unloading IE 5.5 on the world like a truckload of dung. After all, with IE5 for the Mac, they’ve proved they can build a great browser that complies with standards.

Microsoft claims they’ve come “really close” in the Windows version. No, Microsoft, you haven’t. Your HTML 4.0 support is incomplete, your CSS-1 implementation has multiple compound fractures (more on that below), and your forward-looking partial implementations of CSS-2 and CSS-3 are part of the problem, not part of the solution; something like a partial heart transplant.

Microsoft claims that finishing HTML 4.0 and CSS-1 would be too difficult. Well gosh, boys, we know those option upsides aren’t what they used to be, and it does rain a lot up there, but somehow you managed to do the job on the Mac. Don’t Windows users deserve the same level of support? And doesn’t it bother you even a little that the Mac and Windows versions are incompatible?

Microsoft claims that it has supported “a lot” of CSS-1, and demands to know where it has failed. Okay. Let’s take something as simple as absolute font-size keywords, which Microsoft claims to support in their current IE5 browser for Windows.

In IE5/Mac (in Standard mode), absolute font-size keywords are done right, per CSS-1. “Medium” means “medium size” and “small” means “one size smaller than medium.” Not exactly rocket science.

Over in Windows-land, “medium” means “large,” and “small” means “medium.” Confusing? You bet. What does this mean in the real world? It means your text is guaranteed to be wrong-sized on one platform or the other.

What do Web developers do when faced with this kind of maddening stupidity? They stick with <FONT SIZE> tags, or use pixels in their Style Sheets. Could Microsoft fix this defect in their Windows browser? Easily – if they weren’t too busy implementing colored scrollbars. Too much trouble? Getting CSS-1 right was not too much trouble for the Mac team.

One more example. In 1998, the WaSP’s CSS Samurai began testing browsers for CSS compliance. Among the challenges our wizards devised was a “Box Acid Test” which no browser handled correctly at the time. Today, IE/5 Mac handles the Box Acid Test like a charm. You’d think IE5.5/Windows would do likewise. Think again. The browser fails.

How about HTML 4.0? Microsoft got it right in IE5/Mac. In Windows, it’s still unfinished.

HTML 4.0 is important because it provides a vast number of built-in accessibility improvements, allowing more people to use the Web. It makes no sense to leave parts of HTML 4.0 unfinished when doing so impairs Web access for international users, people with disabilities, those with much older browsers or much newer platforms like PDAs and cell phones. Locking out users is morally wrong, bad for business, and contrary to U.S. law. Tangling with the government seems like something Microsoft would want to avoid. Losing marketshare when the government mandates use of browsers that accommodate W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines is also, to use a technical term, kinda stupid.

Four years ago, the CSS-1 Recommendation was stabilized. Two years ago, XML 1.0 was stabilized. In that year we outlined exactly what was needed to save the Web from incompatibilities that fragment the market and slam the door on millions of potential Web users.

Microsoft claims that they don’t know what we mean by support and by standards. For instance, that they don’t know what we mean by XML. Here’s what we mean: reading XML 1.0 syntax (stable since February 1998), displaying it using CSS level 1 (December 1996), and maybe as an optional extra level 2 (May 1998), programming access through the DOM Level 1 (October 1998), and embedding HTML using Namespaces (January 1999). Note that all of these recommendation are over a year old, with many older than two.

Microsoft says they are not sure what we mean by “complete” support. We mean “complete.” What part of “complete” don’t they understand? Anybody who is as obviously smart and tuned-in as Microsoft, but claims not to understand what “complete” means, is playing some kind of game. Guys, standards are not a game, and supporting standards is not something anybody can do half-way, when they feel like it. It is a necessity if the Web is to move forward. It’s necessary for humanitarian reasons (accessibility). It’s necessary to meet the needs of pure, greed-driven Capitalism (e-commerce).

Microsoft championed standards when its browser was the underdog. Now that IE dominates the market, Microsoft talks of “freedom to innovate.” Sounds suspiciously like Netscape’s rationale when they were on top.

Web browsers are not like other software. The market-leading paint program can innovate all it wants. It does not have to be compatible with other paint programs, as long as it outputs standard image files. But the Web is an eco-system, and eco-systems die unless life forms cooperate.

When the market leader emphasizes colored scrollbars instead of commonalities, the Web gets fractured, users get hurt, Web developers stay up all night coding workarounds, and Web site operators get their wallets drained paying those developers. [We'll do without the money, honest - just give our night-time hours back!]

By fumbling the standards ball, and tantalizing developers with nifty proprietary features, Microsoft pretty much guarantees that the Web space will become more fractured (not less) and Web developers will either have to stop supporting some users, or work even longer hours creating page versions for each incompatible browser on the market.

It looks like the WaSP won’t be invited to Bill’s house for dinner any time soon.

But that’s okay. We’ll be working nights anyway.

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