Tuesday 28 September 2010

IE9 and Standards? Nothing to see here, folks; move along...

This is a re-post of a comment I left to the post "HTML5 Support in Internet Explorer 9 on Louis Lazaris' Impressive Webs blog (which I highly recommend for people working in or interested in Web development). I've slightly edited a few places for clarity. The comments that had been left by people were almost universally complaining about Microsoft in general and IE's continuing history of imperfect-at-best compliance with either-you-do-or-you-might-as-well-not-try standards. Having worked in and with Microsoft on several occasions, and being active in a number of open-source projects besides, I have a slightly different view, as I state below. Thanks for reading.

Actually, I'm amazed that it's progressed as much as it has.

Let me be clear; I'm not in any way praising IE; the industry as a whole needs to bury it — decisively, irretrievably and imminently. We as development professionals need to have the professional self-respect to tell current and potential clients, "We develop to current Web standards that are supported across various browsers and platforms. To the degree that any particular release of Microsoft Internet Exploder supports the markup, styling and behaviour of any particular site, that's well and good. However, without monumental additional time and budget resources, no attempt will be made to provide IE support when those resources could instead be used to improve the experience for users of modern browsers."

I firmly believe that IE hasn't progressed as far as, say, Chromium, can be laid firmly at the feet of Microsoft's existing code base. Microsoft's developers and managers are fully experienced with the reality that complete green-field rewrites of existing projects almost never succeed. They've got a code base where the list of major Windows modules and subsystems that do not have dependency relationships with IE could be read aloud comfortably in a single breath. That was done initially by choice; now, it doesn't matter how well-meaning the intentions or competent the team are, they have to live with the codebase they have. It's all legacy code. The developers at Microsoft are (with rare exception) not morons, but living in the sewer while they're trying to make something that can stand next to the shiny new browsers next door has to be a psychologically toxic exercise. Their baby is blowing up the Web left and right; they know it, and they know they can't do a damned thing about it without staging a coup d'├ętat, replacing dozens of levels of management and senior executives and fundamentally changing the culture of the organisation. Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

That isn't sour grapes or a diss against the IE developers; it's simple reality. Microsoft do some amazing things — just not so much for (or on) Windows. Unfortunately for all of us, Windows and Office for Windows are the herds of cash cows for Microsoft, and anything that could be seen as even potentially disrupting that would get shot down faster than you can say S-E-C; the investors would never stand for it. And, with the system and the rules the way they are, they'd be perfectly right. Innovation isn't as important to the bean-counters (or the regulators) as "maintaining and enhancing shareholder value," and MSFT have had enough problems with that lately. (Just compare their share values to, say, AAPL over the last ten years.) Doing anything "risky" is simply politically (and legally, really) impossible.

So, no matter how many times the IE team jump up and down and say "look at all our neat new features," without mentioning the standard features left unimplemented because they pulled off numerous miracles just making what they have work, the response has to be "nothing to see here, folks; move along."

And move along we shall.

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