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Hail and Farewell

I would have posted about this yesterday, but frankly it was too depressing.  As others have noted, Internet Explorer for Macintosh is, effectively, done.  There will not be another major version: I’ll never get to write about CSS support in IE6/Mac, because there won’t be one.  As I said on Webdesign-L yesterday, and Zeldman quoted in part, I said:

[The IE/Mac team] was truly committed to the best standards support they could muster while working for a corporation that did not always share their ideals.  I wish everyone on the IE/Mac team the best of luck in their future projects, whatever they may be.  They not only paved the way for many of the things we now take for granted, but they fought the good fight, fought it hard, and in many respects they emerged victorious.  It’s tough to imagine a better legacy than that.

I was a beta tester for IE5/Mac, and it’s long been a favorite of mine.  There may be some personal bias stemming from the fact that I know bug reports and suggestions of mine are reflected in the final product, but the wider truth is that it was a groundbreaking browser.  I know DOM scripters find it annoying and substandard, but for those of us on the content-authoring side, it was rarely the worst of our troubles.

Others will analyze this development in light of the recent Microsoft/AOL settlement, the cessation of IE/Win as a standalone product, and so on.  I’m not really interested in all that right now.  Instead, I’d like to take a moment to run down a list of innovations and features that IE5/Mac introduced back in 2000:

  • DOCTYPE switching—some would call this a bug, but in my view they’re missing the bigger picture.  DOCTYPE switching was the first mechanism that allowed authors to decide whether their document rendering should look to the past, or to the future.  It permitted browsers to fix bugs in standards support, instead of forever enshrining them for the sake of “backward compatibility.”  This quickly spread to Mozilla, and eventually made its way into Opera and IE/Win.
  • Display resolution setting—there’s a preference dialog where you can set your monitor’s PPI value, literally by holding up a ruler to the screen and using a slider to match the ruler.  Some Windows display drivers had this before, but IE/Mac was the first major browser to build the feature into the browser itself.
  • Text Zoom—don’t like a site’s font size?  Override it with a simple keyboard combination, scaling all the text up or down, depending on what you need.  Mozilla quickly followed suit and Opera introduced Page Zoom, arguably a better solution.
  • Excellent CSS1 support—it’s easy to forget how revolutionary a reasonably complete and bug-free implementation of CSS1 really was.  Yes, there are some bugs, as with anything.  It’s still better than IE6/Win’s CSS1 support.
  • Decent (if limited) CSS2 support—not quite as robust as the CSS1 support, IE5/Mac still made good forays into CSS2.  Remember the browser was shipped about two years after CSS2 went final, which means it was being written maybe a year after CSS2.  That may sound weak, but consider that in addition to fixing all its CSS1 bugs and finishing off CSS1 support, the team found the resources to look at CSS2 and take a stab at doing it right.  That’s pretty impressive, what with them also having to do all the other stuff a browser has to support besides CSS.
  • XML source tree view—if you load up an XML file, you get a “pretty-printed” view of the document and its source, with collapsible element views.  Mozilla got this ability only recently, and I’ve always guessed that IE6’s similar ability only exists because IE5/Mac gave them an example to follow.
  • Full PNG supportincluding alpha channels and gamma adjustment.  Sure, it was years after PNG was published, but who else was doing it at the time?  Even today, people are still signing petitions to get Microsoft to do the same for IE/Win.
  • Customizable toolbar—you could define your own toolbar buttons, create PNGs (with alpha) to represent the buttons, and customize your browser.  It isn’t quite “skins” but it was still pretty darned cool.  Oh, and the toolbar configuration data was stored in XML.
  • Page holder—eventually Mozilla came along with the sidebar, into which almost anything can be installed.  IE5/Mac was doing it long before, albeit with a somewhat different feature set.

There was more, I’m sure, but that was all that came to mind.  When it shipped in 2000, IE5/Mac had a feature set that would be respectable if the browser were released today.  I’d always hoped that one day it would be followed up with a similarly impressive new version.  Sadly, not so.

Just to add an extra layer of melancholy to the whole thing, when Tantek says he found out from folks pointing it out to him, I was one of those folks.  It’s at once difficult and all too easy to believe that the man who created such a good layout engine, and put in so much effort to improve the Web, found out about the end of his own project from friends and the press.

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