IE8 change shows Microsoft trying to 'play nice,' says analyst

Enterprise impact won't rival the disruption caused by IE7

Microsoft Corp.'s decision to make Internet Explorer 8 default to a new "super standards" mode that better adheres to Web standards means the browser won't have as big an impact on enterprises as some have feared, a research analyst said today.

"Although Microsoft worries that IE8 may 'break the Web,' as they put it, I don't think the move from IE7 to IE8 will have the same kind of impact [as moving] from IE6 to IE7," said Ray Valdes, Gartner Inc.'s chief analyst on browsers.

Two weeks ago, Microsoft did a 180-degree turn and said it would make IE8 default to a new standards mode when it renders pages, rather than emulate IE7 as it had originally intended. The move caught many, including Valdes, by surprise.

"Microsoft is really trying to play nice with the Web," he said. "It's trying to show it's the new Microsoft, and so it went with the progressive ideas among Web designers who say, 'Design for standards, not browsers,' rather than go with the enterprise developers."

IE8's new standards support may cause problems for those developers -- both Web site and Web application developers -- because in many cases, their sites and applications have been coded for the quirky IE6 or the even older Internet Explorer 5.5, Valdes said. Microsoft had first gone with the IE7 mode as the default in IE8, he continued, because it "didn't want to repeat the mistake" of IE7, which often didn't display enterprise-developed sites and applications properly.

"I really think Microsoft believes they can straddle both worlds," said Valdes, referring to the enterprise and the more forward-thinking Web in general, where standards are considered a higher priority than backward compatibility. "And they think they have the enterprise covered."

That's one reason why he doesn't see a major malfunction in the offering. "The practical impact isn't large," Valdes said, noting that Microsoft has made allowances for enterprises in IE8, including several ways to deal with existing content and the ability at the administrative level to mitigate changes. "Within an enterprise, [IT] will be able to set it up so that IE8 works in an IE7-compatible mode," he said.

Microsoft unveiled IE8 Beta 1 on March 5 at Mix08, a company-sponsored Web conference; later that day, it posted the beta on its download site. Not surprisingly, users quickly began reporting pages that rendered poorly with the preview or wouldn't work at all. Of the latter, one of the most prominent was Microsoft's own Windows Update site, which refused to appear in IE8. (As of today, Windows Update was still greeting IE8 Beta 1 users with the message: "To use this site, you must be running Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 or later.")

"What's newsworthy about IE8 is that Microsoft had a choice and went with the Web 2.0 side at the last minute," Valdes said. "I don't know what kind of arguments were used internally, but maybe someone said 'This will make us look like hypocrites' if they went the other way after talking about interoperability principles."

When Microsoft trumpeted the change in IE8, it cited the "interoperabiltiy principles" it had presented two weeks before, when it announced changes in how it would work with open-source developers and software rivals, and what information it would share with them.

In a research note published last week, Valdes and another Gartner analyst, David Smith, recommended that enterprises stay on top of the evolving IE8 story by updating Web applications to conform to multibrowser standards, testing Beta 1 now and planning to deploy the new browser within six months after it's launched.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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