IE9: A Leap in the Wrong Direction

Why Microsoft needs to overhaul its web browser strategy

I've been nursing several grudges against Internet Explorer (IE) 9 for a while now—and was planning on keeping them to myself. But when Microsoft started up the spin machine for IE10 a mere 29 days after IE9 was officially released, they struck a nerve. More importantly, the way they struck that nerve convinced me that their direction is about as wrong as it could be when it comes to what IE9 and IE10 are going to mean for web developers.

A Question of Direction
Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Safari all share a common trait—which is that each of these browsers is trying very hard to establish itself as the "platform of choice" for web content among the denizens of the Internet. Superficially, Internet Explorer shares this same commonality.

The difference, however, is that while Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Safari are all striving to make their browsers the platform of choice across all operating systems, Microsoft is taking an entirely different approach by targeting only the latest versions of Windows (Vista and/or Windows 7). More specifically, Microsoft is really stressing the "native" capabilities of the operating system as being the key to achieving their goals.

Consequently, while Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Safari are all striving to enable developers to create HTML5 applications that enable robust end-user experiences across all operating systems, Internet Explorer has a chip on its shoulder, trying to prove that Vista or Windows 7 is the key to a successful browsing experience.

In Microsoft's defense, the prospect of end users adopting browsers as their "platform" doesn't look too appealing when you're sitting atop an empire based upon the sale of operating system licenses. As such, it's not that surprising when the blog post introducing IE10 ends up reading more like a manifesto for how great the latest versions of Windows are.

The Spin Machine Is Out of Control
Yet Microsoft amazingly continues to both apologize for IE6 and beg people to upgrade to a better and safer browser while simultaneously continuing official support of IE6 until April 8, 2014, and releasing IE9—which won't run on Windows XP.

Consequently, Microsoft continues to send very mixed messages.

On one hand they tell developers that IE6 was the worst browser ever, and IE9 will make up for all the pain developers have suffered at the hands of IE6—only to tell us, merely 29 days later, that IE9 needs to be thrown under the bus to make way for IE10. Yet, simultaneously, Microsoft is telling businesses running Windows XP that IE6 is perfect for their needs and will be fully supported until 2014 at the same time they're telling consumers running Windows XP that IE8 is what they should be using.

Sadly, Microsoft and the IE team are getting really good at telling people what they want to hear. For eons now the Microsoft spin machine has been telling developers that IE9 will have the best support for HTML5 of any browser available—while the reality is much more complex than that.

Only, instead of addressing that complexity (or Microsoft's laudable stance of only implementing finalized features), Microsoft and the IE team have cherry-picked tests and prominently displayed them to the point of making it seem like Internet Explorer 10 is the only browser that complies with web standards while all other modern browsers (including IE9) fall short.

Take a look at the chart yourself. It speaks volumes. Before the release of the IE10 preview, IE8 was listed in this chart to show its woeful inadequacies. Now that IE10 is the new focus, IE9 has been thrown under the bus. For example, IE9 used to weigh in with a perfect 100 percent on all existing tests, but now that IE10 is the new focus, new tests have been released and IE9 just isn't as standards compliant as it used to be (only a few months ago).



And while support of HTML5/CSS3 features is made very tricky by virtue of incomplete specifications, Microsoft doesn't address that in these charts. Instead, they've opted for a marketing gimmick that makes it seem like HTML5/CSS3 seem binary—either browsers support "standards," or they don't. Then, with this simplistic outlook, IE10 scores a faithful 100 percent while Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Safari all trail along with paltry support ranging from 59 percent to 87 percent compliance.

Translation: Microsoft's spin machine is out of control—telling developers that IE9/10 have fantastic compliance with HTML5/CSS3 standards while all other browsers are barely able to keep up. No surprise then when developers end up being frustrated with IE9 when they see that it doesn't provide 100 percent support for HTML5 (by design).

Which, in turn, makes me wonder whether Microsoft wasn't trying to stem some of this frustration by releasing IE10 so quickly. Yet, ironically, even IE10 (whenever it ships) still won't be able to keep up with Chrome or Firefox when it comes to many HTML5/CSS3 needs without serious help from something like Modernizr (to say nothing of the fact that IE9 just shipped as a "modern" browser yet still has to heavily leverage a third-party solution like Modernizr to keep up with Chrome and Firefox for many HTML5/CSS3 needs).

Fracturing the Browser Market
In the end, though, the bigger problem that I see here is that if Microsoft is going to continue to target their latest and greatest operating systems as being the key to establishing Internet Explorer as their preferred browser of choice, we're going to keep running into additional fracturing of the browser market. (And we're also going to continue to be exposed to foolish statements like this one: " The only native experience of the Web and HTML5 today is on Windows 7 with IE9.")

More specifically, the fact that IE9 won't install on Windows XP is bad enough in terms of what it will do to the browser market (just the fact that IE9 won't get rid of a single IE6 user strikes me as a huge failure). Couple that with the fact that IE9 won't install on Windows Vista without SP2, and we're going to see additional users sticking with IE7 and IE8, while picking up the need to code sites to render correctly against IE9 (an entirely new rendering engine).

Then, when IE10 is released, it will only be supported on Windows 7, engendering further fracturing of the browser market in order to support Microsoft's stance on targeting browser features and capabilities on only its latest and greatest operating systems. Yet, as new versions of Internet Explorer are released, I'm sure the Microsoft spin machine will continue to hype each new version while simultaneously pretending that previous versions were honest mistakes instead of mere pieces in a game that Microsoft is trying to win as it asserts Windows as the platform of choice over the browser.

Personally, I don't have much of a problem with the hype around each new release. Instead, what I'm getting tired of is the need to keep up with supporting the dead, bloated, bodies of past browsers like IE6, IE7, IE8, and now, amazingly, IE9—even though its body hasn't even been allowed to grow cold.

Michael K. Campbell is a contributing editor for SQL Server Magazine, a regular columnist for DevProConnections.com, and an ASPInsider. Michael is the president of OverAchiever Productions, a consultancy dedicated to technical evangelism, mentoring, and quality solutions. He specializes in SQL Server, ASP.NET, and related technologies. Michael has been a professional developer, web master, and production DBA for several well-known companies. He enjoys learning, problem solving, teaching, and creating free videos for www.sqlservervideos.com.

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