Posts from Friday, April 14th, 2006

Praise IE, Go to Jail

Published 12 years, 6 months ago

A week or so back, the shattered remains of a wasps’ nest appeared in our driveway.  Despite the fact that it’s clearly vacant—even wasps know when it’s time to find new digs—I still tread carefully whenever I walk past, avoiding them out of some latent respect for the threat they once contained.

You’d think I’d behave in a like manner in the rest of my life, but no.  For example: I recently spoke well of the IE team and their efforts.  Kind of an obvious goof, really, but I’d hoped for a different outcome.  It’s the incurable optimist in me.  And when I say “incurable”, I mean that in the sense of “disease that can’t be purged from my body and will no doubt one day kill me”.

While the enraged buzzing took many forms, the comment that seemed to distill the bulk of people’s anger was this:

“How am I supposed to trust a smiling face of some developer at Microsoft when the company as a whole was charged with being an illegal monopoly not too long ago?”

Because one is a person, and the other is a corporation.  I realize that American law moronically (and, in a certain sense, unlawfully) equates the two, but they really are distinct concepts.

You can dismiss my attitude as the biased perspective of someone who personally knows members of the IE team.  That would be a major miscalculation, because it’s those personal relationships that make my observations different than what you’ll find elsewhere.  Think what you will of Microsoft, but there are actual people working on IE, and they’re by and large people who care about the same things we care about.  They are part of this story.  If you think they’re minor nodes in a monolithic collective consciousness, then boy, do you ever have a lot to learn about how large organizations function.

Allow me to draw an analogy, if I may.  While at Mix 06, I was talking with one of the senior IE team folks about improving standards and the browser market.  He said to me, “So what is it the Web design community wants?”—as if there is a single such community, and it always speaks with a unified voice on all matters.  Does that sound like the Web design community you know?  Does that even sound like any arbitrary collection of five Web designers you know?  (Aside to WaSP steering committee members: feel free to take a ten-minute laughter break.)

So why do we assume that Microsoft, a company with tens of thousands of employees working in hundreds of teams and units, would be any more unified?  Sure, the PR department speaks with a single voice.  To take that as representative of every Microsoft engineer is like ceding all authority for your thoughts and opinions on Web development and design to the Web Standards Project.  Anyone volunteering for that?

Not me, thanks.  Not even when I was a member, back towards the end of the last millennium.

This is what I said to him, by the way, except I compared the Web community to Microsoft, with all its subunits and competing voices and priorities and goals.  He got what I was saying instantly, even though it let him down a bit.  His job would be easier, after all, if the Web design community were a unified collective.  It’s certainly less mental effort to think of “the other camp” as being a Borg-like hive, isn’t it?

A few people accused me of being lulled into missing the Great Looming Threat of Microsoft’s non-standards efforts.  For example:

“…Microsoft spent those years planning and building WPF, to lure Web developers into its proprietary and patent-protected embrace. And that should have you most concerned.”

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, wore it threadbare, and repurposed it as a cleaning rag.  I was openly expressing precisely that concern back in October 2003, which as you may recall was near the middle of said years.  The aggregate response of the community was a disinterested shrug.  This was largely true whether I posted publicly or talked to people one on one, as I’d done in several cases in the months before October 2003.  The only place I found any similar concern was with some folks at Macromedia, thank you very much.  Everyone else seemed to think I was on crack.  So sorry, but I pretty much wore out my concern back then.  You can have it now.

Besides, over time I’ve come to see WPF (as it’s now called) as being very much like Flash, which it clearly wants to supplant.  Despite all these years of Flash being very widely installed, and all the years of Flash being able to do XML data exchange with servers to cause dynamic updating of pages—you know, like Ajax does—the Web has not become an enormous Flash application.

I thought the most interesting observation was this one:

“Dave Shea pointed out… a few months ago that one reason [for IE7] may be that Microsoft, in developing things like, are finally having to eat their own dogfood, struggling to get things working on their own browser, and that as such there may have been internal pressure to get things up to scratch.”

That makes a certain amount of sense, though I’m not about to accept it as the sole reason for IE7’s development path or even its existence.  I think there were a whole lot of factors that drove IE7 into being, and standards support was honestly pretty far down on the list.  I, for one, am deeply grateful that the IE team seized on the opportunity to build better standards support into the browser, whatever the internal rationale they used to justify it to the higher-ups.

I’m also impressed with the CSS and other advances in IE7, and with how the IE team is managing the development process to accommodate the needs of Web developers and designers.  They didn’t have to do any of that.  After all the crap they’ve had dumped on them the last decade or more, they have every reason not to care about what’s best for the Web.  Despite this, they still do.  Recognize and respect that, if nothing else.