Category Archives: IE7

IE7 Backward Compatibility a Red Herring

IE7 and standards compliance – Microsoft’s Chris Wilson charts progress
Richard MacManus of ZDNet interviewed Microsoft’s Chris Wilson, the Group Program Manager for IE, to address the issue of whether Microsoft’s latest web browser IE7 is – and will be – CSS and Web standards compliant. At one point the conversation veers into the subject of backward compatibility–the supposed need for IE7 to continue rendering non-standards-compliant pages in the same way that IE5 and IE6 do. Chris talks about what a big challenge this is for Microsoft, but in this particular interview doesn’t say much about what they are going to do about it. However, in other public articles and posting, Microsoft IE Program Managers including Chris Wilson have frequently raised the notion that any lack of standards-compliance in IE7 will be due to the need to maintain backward compatibility.
I really think that all of this talk from Microsoft about backward compatibility is a red herring. It’s an excuse not to do the right thing. You’ll notice that they never provide any data or statistics to backup their claims that backward compatibility is needed. All they offer are anecdotal stories about somebody’s mother visiting her favorite website and finding that it doesn’t work or look right any more.
I browse the web using Firefox, which I’ve used since it’s inception, and Mozilla suite before that. I’ve found that it is exceedingly rare these days to find a website that doesn’t look and behave correctly in Firefox, or Opera or Safari. While I wouldn’t claim my usage to be a representive sample, the experience is enough to convince me that there are very few web pages or sites in common or widespread usage that are hard-coded to work specifically with IE6 and break when viewed with anything else. The vast majority of the web is machine-generated, and most of the templates used have been updated so that, while they may not be paragons of web standards goodness, at least they don’t use IE-only features that will break in the other major browsers.
What Microsoft needs to do is to fix all of their bugs and add CSS feature support up to the baseline established by those 3 browsers. Then any site which follows the current best-known practices in web development will render correctly in IE7. If you don’t understand what that last sentence means, then read Zeldman’s book, or Cederholm’s book, or Budd’s book, et cetera.
Under that scenario, the only websites that will fail to render correctly are those which (a) use the old, discredited technique of “browser-sniffing” specifically for IE, and (b) fail to check for versions later than version 6 and provide a pass-through. For those sites–which really need to be exposed and upgraded–Microsoft could provide a button in the UI which switches the rendering back and forth between standards-compliant mode and “IE6” mode, and give users instructions to click that button if the site they’re viewing doesn’t look right. For that matter, Microsoft could probably detect 99% of the problematic sites by examining the code before its rendered, and switch into IE6 mode. They could have each browser keep track of which sites only work in IE6 mode, then upload those site lists to a central repository accessible to all IE7 users. They could even send those site’s developers an email detailing the virtues of standards-compliance… Naaah!