.NET Developments

Mar 19 2009   7:57PM GMT

Microsoft releases IE8; fixes and breaks standards compliance

Yuval Shavit Profile: YuvalShavit

LAS VEGAS — The final version of Internet Explorer 8 is out, and Microsoft spent today’s keynote showing off its full CSS 2.1 compliance, faster speeds and developer tools. But just as he finished talking about standards compliance, Microsoft IE general manager Dean Hachamovitch introduced a few new features that show just how hard real standards compliance are in the browser market.

First, the good news: IE8 is a major improvement over its predecessor. It’s faster, has plenty of handy features and comes with built-in developer tools. We covered IE8’s developer tools a few months ago, when it was still in beta; some of its new security features include recognizing malware sites and graying out all but the top level domain (TLD) in the URL bars, which will make it easier to notice phishing attacks. Chrome enthusiasts will be interested to learn that IE8 borrowed one of Chrome’s most compelling features: each tab is now a self-contained process, so a crash on one page won’t take down the whole browser.

The browser is also more compliant: Microsoft says it passes all of the 7201 tests it came up with and submitted to W3C, the body that sets Web standards.

But IE8 also has three new features called Slices, Accelerators and Visual Search. These enable sites to repackage themselves in interesting ways. For instances, IE8 sports a toolbar similar to the menu bar for Slices, which act as minature Web sites; clicking on one of these buttons shows its content, which can contain anything from news updates to an in-depth search field. It’s all very cool, and only IE8 supports it.

And that’s the kicker: Slices, Accelerators and Visual Search aren’t standards compliant, because IE8 is the only browser that supports them. Yes, they’re all based on standard XML; but that only takes you so far. That takes us to the real question: are the W3C’s standards the ones that count, or the de facto standards set by browsers?

The point of standards is to simplify development. HTML, CSS, JavaScript and the rest should be “write once, run anywhere,” to borrow Java’s infamous mantra. The best way to do that is to agree on the standards and then write software to match them: Microsoft has done that for CSS, but its unilateral introduction of Slices, Accelerators and Visual Search show that realpolitik is still very much alive in the browser wars.

My guess is that browsers will never be fully compliant, and that’s a good thing. If each browser were really compliant — if it rendered the standards perfectly and nothing else — there’d be very little room for experimentation and progress. Any competition between browsers would be solely on speed, security and stability. Those are all great goals, of course, but it’s also nice that browsers are looking for ways to push the envelope.

What’s important is that we go back every once in a while, see what’s worked, and standardize it before moving forward again. And that’s what Microsoft has done with IE8.

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