Rise And Fall Of Version Targeting In Internet Explorer 8

Mar 28, 2008 (08:03 PM EDT)

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In January, Microsoft announced a controversial plan to include a meta tag switch to enable its rendering engine to use the latest features on future versions of Internet Explorer. This means that the default behavior of IE8 would be exactly that of the previous version, unless the Web page being rendered had a meta tag stating that IE should use the newer rendering engine. The idea was to prevent a repeat of the problems surrounding the release of IE7: After years of living with IE6, which was notoriously buggy, Web designers had come up with common but nonstandard workarounds to trick IE6 into rendering Web pages correctly. IE7 corrected many of IE6's bugs, meaning many pages that corrected for IE6 problems did not render correctly in IE7.

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Microsoft's strategy? Provide for a kinder, gentler introduction of new browsers: Install IE8, fix pages to work properly with the newer engine, then add a meta tag that says your pages are ready for IE8, rather than work on Microsoft's release schedule. Microsoft said it received feedback regarding this decision from several members of the Web Standards Project beforehand, and details were published on the A List Apart Web site.

Once this plan was widely announced, however, it created a flood of negative feedback. Critics, including Microsoft's competitors and even Ian Hickson, the HTML5 specification editor, contended that a meta tag switch would increase the complexity of authoring HTML down the road. In response, Microsoft changed course and on March 3 announced that IE8 will render in "standards mode" by default. Web developers will have to add provisions to their pages to make them render in IE7 compatibility mode. While this change of heart could be because of negative feedback from Web developers, it comes on the heels of an 899 million euro antitrust fine. In a press release, Brad Smith, Microsoft's senior VP and general counsel, states: "While we do not believe there are currently any legal requirements that would dictate which rendering mode must be chosen as the default for a given browser, this step clearly removes this question as a potential legal and regulatory issue."

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HTML5 Jumps Off The Drawing Board

Mike Lee is an independent IT consultant and software developer and an InformationWeek contributor.