Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Fear and Loathing in Redmond

Microsoft has been hitting the tech headlines this week for decisions they've made concerning Internet Explorer 8, the next version of one of the cornerstone platforms for web development.  But this idea that IE is a platform unto its own is what has been troubling Microsoft.  Throughout the history of Internet Explorer, its often taken liberties with how it renders html.  In the 90's, this aided Microsoft in a lot of ways.  I wouldn't presume to know the politics of a Microsoft boardroom, but as an examination of the times, Microsoft was looking for a strong upper-hand against Netscape to put their browser away.  Microsoft's browser already had a strong following, but making sure that the web was written to work with IE was a clear way of shoring up even more support.  And thats pretty much the way the web was left following, for all intents and purposes, the defeat of Netscape by Microsoft.

...Until the birth of Web 2.0.

Today, the web is ruled by technologies that follow the heading of Web 2.0.  And the problem that Microsoft currently has is that these technologies in a lot of the web 2.0 sites are outputting standards compliant HTML, and browsers like Safari/Konqueror and Firefox are being pushed to render HTML and CSS completely by the specs.  Now, we have a sort of split web platform, where web applications either work and look right in IE, or they look and work right in everything else.  Microsoft, obviously, has been trying to close the gap, and so they've decided to try to write the most standards-compliant browser possible - In IE 8.

The issue that stands now is that Microsoft has to figure out how to support the fact that sites exist that were written to deal with Microsofts "liberties" with how they render HTML, and their goal of writing a good, standards-compliant browser.  Their proposed solution is that they would essentially include separate rendering engines for sites written for different versions of IE.

Its interesting because I see Microsoft, in how they form strategy behind their applications, to be very calculating, very political, and often reigned by fear.  The fear of not being the commanding leader in the web industry led them to obfuscate their rendering engine, to steal the web in essence.  And the standards didn't matter to them until one day, the web platform pushed standards into the spotlight.  The Web 2.0 ushered in a lot of new ideas, but one was that the browser was not going to be the platform, the Web itself was going to be the platform.  Browsers were not going to make the rules, they instead would be become ambassadors for the web.  And once this paradigm started to be embraced, once the Acid2 test became important, once standards compliance became a requirement instead of a floaty term, Microsoft was suddenly full of interest and zeal.  The fear now is being relegated to the status of "That old Web 1.0 browser", and it'll be interesting to see how Microsoft's plan for IE 8 actually plays out.  


Wes said...

Here is an interesting post from James Bennett that I think does a pretty good job of explaining some of the background and possible reasoning at Microsoft.

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