IE7: Should I Be Afraid?

Wed 25 Jan 2006 1:24pm

An uncertain specter looms on the horizon. I don’t know whether to run towards or away from it. Yes, it’s true, after hemorrhaging browser market share to Firefox for a while, Microsoft finally decided that they should put some people back on the Internet Explorer project, even though it’s not a big money maker for them. As much as they might like to ignore the web as a platform, the recent explosion in user-centric web apps and Microsoft’s response with (among other things) Windows Live proves that they are no longer content to ignore the area and let sleeping dogs (or crappy browsers) lie.

Yes, Microsoft is going to release IE7, and their developer’s blog shows some encouraging signs. Native XMLHTTPRequest support (without ActiveX)? Great! Support for PNG transparency? Great! Improved support for CSS? Well… It turns out that if you dig into what “improved support for CSS” really means in IE7, you’ll find mixed blessings.

For those readers who don’t know, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) are the standards-compliant way to style web pages. The idea is to keep content (in the XHTML) separate from layout (in the CSS). This has many benefits, one of the most important being the increased ease with which you can change the presentation of a website (namely, by altering one file instead of all of them.) In the past, Internet Explorer has had absolutely abysmal support for CSS. Certain things don’t work, or only partially work, or work in totally wrong and unexpected ways. A CSS-styled page that looks completely normal in standards-compliant browsers such as Firefox will probably look totally broken in IE unless you spend hours of extra time debugging it.

How does one debug CSS for IE? Funny you should ask. A large community has sprung up dedicated to finding ways around IE’s many CSS bugs. In most cases, you kill IE CSS bugs with other IE CSS bugs. (One example of this is the well known “holly hack”.) Thus, a large community of developers committed to standards and the use of CSS have carefully crept around IE’s issues and continued to support the crippled browser with such an unfortunately large market share.

However, times are changing. The IE team has announced that they are eliminating the “star-HTML” hack (at the core of the “holly hack”) along with many other IE “band aid bugs” that many developers use to fix more serious problems. Now, assuming that they actually bring IE7 up to the level of standards-compliance as, say, Firefox, this would be great. It even sounds like they are on the right track. But when they start talking about using conditional selectors (a non-standard IE-only feature) to feed IE with CSS fixes instead (which is more of a headache and requires multiple CSS files instead of just one), I start to get a little bit nervous.

Are Microsoft and the IE Team’s motives pure? I’d like to think so. So much of my time as a web designer has been wasted experimenting with hacks to fix their humorously broken CSS rendering that I really want to believe them. However, if they were really building a standards-compliant browser, then it would just render pages the way Firefox currently renders them (correctly), so there would be no problems. So why are they complaining about developers using hacks and warning them about issues with IE7? This might suggest something more sinister: IE7 isn’t going to fix all the issues, and thousands of developers will be forced to go back and fix countless websites to make up for Microsoft’s pigheadedness.

Alper has a much darker theory about what IE7 actually means to Microsoft. He predicts that the probable partial support of CSS in IE7 is actually just part of a plot by Microsoft to further fragment and disrupt the standards community with new headaches while they continue to push the .NET platform as an alternative to the new web application boom. Sounds plausible to me, although it makes me very sad. I hope he’s wrong. For every developer’s sake, I hope that MS makes IE7 the most standards-compliant browser on the market. But something tells me that they’d rather push for ownership of the web than cooperate with standards bodies and encourage cross-browser compatibility. Drat.

Some people might argue that designers should just lay off the pretty-juice and design simple cross-browser compatible pages that are ho-hum but functional (some might say Nielsenesque.) However, I refuse to have my creativity restricted. I can and will find ways to let the designs in my head out into my browser and the web. Even if I have to start refusing to send my stylesheets to IE browsers altogether and giving a large portion of the market a purely textual experience. Or maybe I should just go against accessibility and start using Explorer Destroyer on everything I do.

Comments (Only One So Far)

Dean says:
Thu 26 Jan 2006 - 2:47am

Great post. I agree with much of it. I think there were things other than pigheadedness behind some of the layout behavior. Also, FWIW, the sinister conspiracy stuff just isn’t true. Or, if it is, no one has sent me the meeting requests. Looking forward to reading more!

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Sean McBride
Engineer / Web Developer
Boston, MA - Billings, MT

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