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More CSS in IE 7, But is it Enough?

Long decried for its lack of Web standards support, Microsoft is throwing more Cascading Style Sheets (CSS ) functionality into the next iteration of Internet Explorer (IE) 7.

In a blog post late last week Chris Wilson, IE's lead program manager, announced the Redmond, Wash.-based company's enhanced support for the technology that is used by developers to separate the presentation layer of a Web page from the document structure.

"I want to be clear that our intent is to build a platform that fully complies with the appropriate Web standards, in particular CSS 2," Wilson noted in his blog entry.

It's a long-overdue update to the popular Web browser, which is used by a vast majority of the Internet public but has lately found itself in competition with alternative browsers like Firefox and Opera, which have more Web standards-based features. CSS 2.0 was published as a World Wide Web (W3C) standard in 1998.

But whether that extra CSS support will be enough to appease the developer community remains to be seen.

CSS support in IE has been lacking to date, a fact that hasn't escaped developers who create Web sites that need to be compatible with all browsers. Since IE is the dominant browser out there, with roughly 90 percent market share, developers are forced to write their code to meet the browser's functionality.

Jon von Tetzchner, co-founder and CEO of browser vendor Opera, said he hopes Microsoft will be doing better on Web standards but is disappointed IE 7 will not pass the Acid2 test. The test is a Web page published by WaSP containing the features found in existing Web standards and determines which features are supported by the browser.

In his blog Wilson downplayed the importance of the Acid2 test, saying it made a good "wish list" for the IE team to use in development but not as a compliance tester.

"We would have really have liked them to embrace standards and actually implement the standards fully," von Tetzchner said. "They are, in practice, holding back the Internet by not implementing standards. In general, Microsoft has been taking standards quite lightly and they haven't been implementing them fully and hopefully they will change that, but the proof lies in the pudding."

According to the blog entry, IE 7 will include CSS 2.1 Selectors and CSS 2.1 fixed positioning. Selectors are the 15 pattern-matching rules in CSS 2.1 that determine which styles apply to elements within a document tree. Fixed positioning, on the other hand, lets Web developers create fixed boxes on a Web page, similar to frames .

A Microsoft spokesperson said it's too early to comment on what will end up in the final version of IE 7 outside the two added CSS features, but hinted there might be more.

"In IE7, the browser architecture has been re-engineered to address compatibility and will offer additional support for popular standards, including CSS 1 plus many features of CSS 2 and 2.1," the spokesperson said. "This will simplify the developer's experience for working with the sites that can be read and properly displayed by the largest amount of Web users."

Currently, according to the Microsoft representative, CSS 2 features include absolute and relative positioning, downloadable fonts, media-dependent style sheets and visual effects.

Wilson's blog entry acknowledges the dearth of CSS, saying, "we fully recognize that IE is behind the game today in CSS support."

Microsoft's track record for standards compliance in its Web browser isn't the best. While the company has supported most of the language in HTML 4.0 for some time, IE was criticized for its lack of support for CSS, XML , XSL as far back as the release of version 5.0 in 1999.

Microsoft has largely ignored making substantial improvements to its browser in recent years, coasting along with a dominating market share after besting Netscape in the so-called browser wars.

IE 6, Microsoft's last major release, went public in October 2001 in conjunction with the launch of Windows XP. It seems that history is repeating itself because IE 7 has been tied to the launch of Windows Vista, which was released to beta testers on the same day as the browser.

"Microsoft has really tied Internet Explorer development to the operating system," said Joe Wilcox, an analyst at Jupiter Research (Jupiter Research and internetnews.com are owned by Jupitermedia). "I would question whether there would be renewed IE development if a new operating system were not in development right now."

There are other factors to consider, too. Wilcox said that while every company pays heed to the feedback generated by its customers, Microsoft has not felt a compelling need to add new features to IE. With its market dominance the Redmond giant -- and browser vendors in general -- doesn't have much incentive to stick money into investing in updates for an application that doesn't make them money.

Until recently, he continued, there's been no need from a money-making point of view to make those investments.

Now, he said, "they're finding new ways to monetize their browser, starting with paid search. The browser by itself is still basically a freebie, but the browser connected to something else is potentially a revenue generator."

Much of the focus in the upcoming browser is on security and correcting bugs in the browser. There are a number of developer bugs getting corrected, though most of the fixes won't appear until the second beta release of IE 7. The browser will also feature enhanced anti-phishing, spyware and malicious software protections.

But some user improvements are in the works, too. The tabbed browsing feature that has been commonplace in some browsers for years is now finally making its way into IE 7.