RealTime IT News

Internet Explorer 8 Tries New Compatibility Solution

For Web developers and surfers who discovered that Internet Explorer 7.0 "broke" some (or many) of their favorite Web sites, there may be good news.

Now, Microsoft is working to avoid that problem in version 8 by letting Web site developers signal to IE how standards-compliant it ought to be with their pages, according to a blog post on Microsoft's IEBlog this week.

At the heart of the problem lies Web standards compatibility -- and, sometimes, the lack thereof -- in different releases of IE over the years.

In one move to improve the situation, Microsoft last month announced that an early version of the pre-beta code for IE 8.0 had successfully passed the so-called Acid2 browser compatibility tests.

"Acid2 is a test of modern browsers that determines how well a browser works with several different Web standards," the company said at the time.

However, few Web sites actually depend on browsers being Acid2 compliant, so that status may be less important than advertised.

The company also said it has additional plans for IE8's standards compliance to further ease Web site developers' pain and make sites appear a lot more consistent for Web surfers. It's unclear at present what those plans might be.

The longstanding issue facing IE's developers is how it should display both content that doesn't meet Web standards as well as content that does. Throughout the more than a decade that IE has been in service, it has been subject to repeated bashing for its lack of full compliance with common Web standards.

That concern, in fact, was part of Opera Software's complaint to the European Commission last month. In claiming that Microsoft behaves anti-competitively, Opera said Microsoft intentionally limits IE's Web standards compliance to hurt less-popular browsers with better compliance.

Microsoft in the past has at least said it's interested in improving IE's standards compliance. However, the results have been a mixed bag.

For instance, IE7, which shipped in October 2006, increased the browser's compatibility with Web standards -- particularly in the area of Cascading Style Sheets, which help organize and apply design elements to Web pages.

"Unfortunately, and somewhat surprisingly to us ... many of those changes made IE incompatible with content that was already part of the Web," IE Platform Architect Chris Wilson wrote in the blog post.

In an effort to avoid a repeat performance, Microsoft said it has decided to add a new, optional, "super" compatibility mode to IE8.

IE already features two modes of behavior -- one called "quirks" mode and another dubbed "standards" mode -- that can be used to display Web content.

Quirks mode lets the browser display non-standard, typically older content. Standards mode, naturally, enables display of more standards-compliant pages.

However, standards compliance on the Web can be a moving target, as Microsoft has discovered.

"We realized that 'Don't Break the Web' should really be translated to 'Don't change what developers expect IE to do for current pages that are already deployed,'" Wilson wrote. "With this painful and unexpected lesson under our belt, we worked together with [standards advocacy group] The Web Standards Project ... on this problem."

What the IE team has decided to do, he said, is to enable Web page designers to insert a "meta" element, or tag, that tells IE8 (or a subsequent update of the browser) to use the highest level of compatibility available.

"We think this approach allows developers to opt in to standards behavior on their own schedule and as it makes sense to them, instead of forcing developers into a responsive mode when a new version of IE has different behavior on their current pages," Wilson wrote.

The first beta test copies of IE8 are due out in the first half of this year.