Has Internet Explorer Just Shot Itself in the Foot? | January 22, 2008

If you haven’t read the latest posts on A List Apart, you should pop over now. Don’t worry. I’ll be here when you get back.

Oh hello! So what did you think then? If you’re anything like me your first reaction was probably a mixture of intrigue, confusion and disbelief, followed by an expletive along the lines of “what the f#@k”!

To quickly summarise, the Internet Explorer team have floated the idea of setting a meta tag in your document to defines what version of their browser your site has been designed for. The logic is somewhat similar to the current process of DOCTYPE switching, but with more granular control. So if you’re worried that your site may break on IE8, you can add the following line of code at the top of your document, freezing it to IE7 style rendering.

<meta http-equiv="X-UA-Compatible" content="IE=8" />

I’m not exactly sure how the browser plans to implement this, but I imagine it would involve multiple rendering engines or a really complicated set of rules and exceptions. This seems like extra work for the IE team, but it’s an interesting idea.

This idea has come about because Microsoft are worried about “breaking the web”. Essentially they’re concerned that new browsers will stop rendering older pages correctly, annoying site owners, browser users and—probably more importantly for Microsoft—corporate customers. If we look at the bigger picture, this logic does make a certain amount of sense. If I, as a regular Joe user, download the latest version of IE, I expect it to do etter job at displaying websites. I don’t expect my favourite Geocities page to suddenly break.

Backwards compatibility is a legitimate concern, and one that keeps cropping up in the discussions over HTML5. After all, we do risk losing some of our digital heritage. However this issue obviously needs to be put in perspective. By constantly worrying about the past we risk missing out on the possibilities of the future. Imagine if all new media players had to be backward compatible? We’d end up with a device that could play anything from 8mm film right the way through to Blu-ray disks. It would be nice, but incredibly bloaty. Eventually we’d start dropping support for old media, or just stop inventing new ones.

But I digress. As developers what we want is the ability innovate and use new tools to create better experiences. One of the great things about CSS is the way it allows us to use the concepts of progressive enhancement or graceful degradation to seamlessly supply different experiences to different browsers. This forward compatibility is one of the fundamental tenants of the web standards movement, so if something comes about to threaten that, it’s understandable the developers would react badly. Browser targeting appears, on the surface at least, to threaten this, so developers are understandably a little miffed.

Now the main problem isn’t with the concept itself. After all, if developers want to freeze their site at IE7, that’s all fine and dandy. The problem is the default behaviour. Logic would suggest that unless a developer actively chooses to freeze their browser version, the browser should go on rendering a page in the fail-tolerent way they always have. If a site then breaks—usually because of browser specific coding—the developer can add in a single line of HTML in order to fix the problem.

Unfortunately the default behaviour doesn’t currently work this way. Unless you explicitly set a version number or use the “edge” keyword to target the latest version, the browser will automatically render in IE7 mode. My esteemed colleague Jeremy Keith, puts it thus.

“Unless you explicitly declare that you want IE8 to behave as IE8, it will behave as IE7.

When you put it that way, it does sound kinda nuts. No matter what future version of IE you’re using—be that IE8 or IE80—if the developer hasn’t added the appropriate meta tag, you’ll be viewing the site as if in IE7.

While I disagree with this default behaviour, I do sort of understand where it comes from. It’s all to do with fail-safes and perspective. From a developer perspective, unless I’ve asked my browser to behave differently, the fail-safe should always be to act in the most open, modern and standards compliant fashion possible. However from the average users perspective, the browser should always attempt not to break stuff that used to work just fine. This forms a bit of an impasse and it the crux of the problem.

The big irony is that, by doing this, Microsoft have set up the ideal conditions to marginalise their own browser. Clueless developers won’t know about this behaviour so every new site they build will automatically be rendered as IE7. Clued-up developers will use this as an excuse to freeze support for IE and turn their attentions to better browsers. Users will see less benefit from upgrading and will be more likely to turn to other browsers. In fact the only people to benefit are the small minority of web standards developers who use Internet Explorer as their primary browsers.

No matter what great leaps forward the Internet Explorer team make from now on, the majority of developers won’t use them and the majority of users won’t see them. By doing this the Internet Explorer team may have created their own backwater, shot themselves in the foot and left themselves for dead.

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SXSW 2008 | January 20, 2008

So time is ticking along and SXSW 2008 is almost upon us. As each week passes I learn of more friends going, and the excitement is starting to build. It seems like half of Brighton will be over in Austin this year, so I’m looking forward to introducing a whole new generation of Brits to the craziness that it SXSW.

To celebrate, Clearleft, Carsonified and Boagworld will be hosting the second annual Great British Booze-up on Monday the 10th of March. Kicking off at 7:30pm in the Shakespeare’s Pub on E 6th Street, there’ll be FREE food, FREE booze and an all British soundtrack. It’s a great opportunity for all the Brit’s at Southby to get-together with their Americans chums for a traditional British knees-up. Warm beer and pork scratchings optional.

Last year’s event was a lot of fun, and loads of people said it was their favourite party of conference. So much so, we’ve actually become an official SXSW event this year. With that in mind, if you want to come along, please make sure you get there early as places are strictly limited and the food and booze won’t last for ever. Once the beer finally runs out, we’ll all be heading over to the Iron Cactus for NXNW.

I have to admit that I was a little jaded by the quality of some of the panels last year. I think there were too many speakers running panels just to get a free ticket. Panels seem like an easy option, but are actually pretty hard to do. Just look at the work that went into something like the Design Eye sessions to see what I mean. As such I’m mostly going to concentrate on presentations this year and only go to panels that look particularly interesting. I’m also not going to worry about going to every session possible. Instead I’m going to spend a bit more time hanging out in the corridors, at lunch or over coffee with people. Half the fun of SXSW is meeting up with people you don’t get to see that often, so that’s going to be one of my priorities this year.

With so many things going on at SXSW, it can be a little intimidating for the first time attendee. The good news is that people are ridiculously friendly, so just go up and start talking to people. Before you know it you’ll be swept along on mass for lunch or to the next party. If you’re new to Southby, definitely check out SXSW Baby for all the conference gossip.

If you don’t know Austin, the cool bars are mostly located along 6th Street or 4th Street. Popular places to eat, drink and hang out include Halcyon Coffee Bar, Buffalo Billards, Iron Cactus, Las Manitas, Magnolia and Moonshine. If in doubt, either follow the crowd or check Twitter.

Lastly, the day of registration is usually a bit of a write-off, so if people are interested I’m thinking of organising a trip out to the Texas Rodeo.

If you know Austin well, and fancy sharing some of your top tips for SXSW, please feel free.

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2008 Conference Schedule | January 15, 2008

It’s the beginning of a new year so I’m starting to work out my conference schedule for 2008. Here is a list of all the events I’m attending or speaking at, and another list of all the events I’d love to be attending, but probably won’t be.

Attending/speaking

Would like to attend

If there are any great events you think I should be attending, please let me know.

Hope to catch you at a few of these.

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The Defining Culture of the Naughties? | January 8, 2008

So another year has gone and we’ve only got a couple left till the end of the “naughties” and the start of a new decade. Ever since the second world war, each decade has been typified by it’s own unique culture, usually a combination of the music and fashion of the day. These cultural movements start small and localised, but the popular ones thrive and get transported round the world via movies, radio, magazines and TV. Prior to the war, cultural movements did exist. They just were more localised and look longer to propagate due to the lack of mass media.

Sat chatting with a few friends on New Years Eve, we started pondering what cultural movements defined the “naughties”. In the 60s you had the Mods and Rockers, the 70s saw the rise of Disco, while the late 80s saw birth of Rave culture. The 90s, while not typified by any particular fashion style, saw the whole era of BritPop. However try as we might, we struggled to think of this decades defining culture. Sure there were subcultures like “emo” or “chav”, although the latter is more slur than pop culture.

Simon Wilison postulated that the “naughties” were defined by Internet culture, and while the idea was attractive, it didn’t hold up to scrutiny. After all, their isn’t really a single Internet culture, but multifarious ones. And then Simon said something that really struck a chord. He suggested that the “naughties” were the decade of the “long-tail”. That essentially the democratisation of mass media had led to one big melting-pot of individual cultures rather than a few tightly defined one.

Rather than people dividing themselves into groups defined by the music they listen to or the cloths they wear, the people of the “naughties” define themselves on a much more atomic level, by a particular artist or item of clothing. Looking from a great height, popular culture seems very homogenised. However if you look at people under a microscope, everybody is minutely different to everybody else in such a way as to damped emergent patterns.

So what does this mean? Does this mean that the “naughties” are the end of popular culture movements as everybody truly becomes and individual? Does it mean that when our children look back on these days they won’t be rifling through our wardrobes looking for that “naughties” look, because they’ll still pretty much look the same?

I’ve always harboured the fantasy that in 40 years time all the OAPs will be wearing the same scruffy t-shirts and baggy pants their children and grandchildren will be wearing, travelling around of skateboards and buying the same music. Surely if this happens the yoof will be forced to rebel and go even further back in time. Who knows, maybe when we’re all retired the kids of tomorrow will be wearing ridiculously big ruffs and listening to Elizabethan revival music? God I hope not!

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Opera vs Microsoft Reprise | January 2, 2008

Thanks for all the fantastic comments on my previous post about Opera’s complaint to the European Commission. Sorry it’s taken a while to post a follow-up, but I moved house over the holidays and BT haven’t sorted out my Internet connection yet. Anyway, I’ll try to address some of the issues that were raised in the comments, but apologies if I miss anything out.

I personally believe that Microsoft have been doing a great job over the last couple of years brining their browser up to scratch. IE7 still has a few issues, but then again, what browser doesn’t? So I honestly think IE is pretty comparable with its competition in regards to current standards support. Future standards support is another issue, but I’ll cover that in a future post.

As a quick aside, the concept of “fully standards complaint” is a tricky one and the reason why CSS2.1 is taking so long to finish. The CSS2 specification was very loose and didn’t cover error handling or fall-back cases. As such, each browser took it’s own stance and you ended up with them technically following the spec while at the same time behaving differently. CSS2.1 attempts to address this problem by defining these niche issues, but as you can imagine it’s taking a long time.

I agree that IE7 is a much more capable browser these days, so many of the concerns developers have about Microsoft’s market dominance have vanished. This is one reason why I think Opera should remove the issue of standards support from their complaint. This leaves the complaint purely about monopolistic business practices which, from the content of your comments on my previous post, people seem less concerned about. This makes perfect sense as we’re mostly concerned with making our lives and the lives of our users easier, rather than worrying about the ethics of global business.

However on the ethics side, I think it’s important to make the distinction between people not being able to pre-install a different browser on their machines and simply not wanting to. I agree that most hardware manufacturers would probably stick with IE as, like a few people mentioned, that’s what most home users expect. However surely manufacturers should have the right to install whatever browser they want on their hardware? I could definitely see a case where manufacturers would try to distinguish themselves through the software they bundle with their machines. And I could foresee large companies such as IBM buying computers pre-installed with Firefox rather than IE.

The issue isn’t about supplying a PC to end users that doesn’t come with a browser pre-installed. That would obviously be stupid. The issue is about allowing computer manufacturers, and by extension their end users, to choose what browser or browsers come pre-installed. Whether people choose to exercise that right is another matter.

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