Microsoft stresses backward compatibility for IE8

But some developers blast optional 'super standards' mode as a bad move

Microsoft Corp. hopes to balance backward compatibility with Web standards in Internet Explorer (IE) 8 by enabling a new, optional "super standards" mode in the browser, a company official said yesterday.

Some Web developers immediately criticized the decision, while others applauded the move.

Chris Wilson, a platform architect on Microsoft's IE team, spelled out the new mode in a long post to the group's blog on Monday, the first time that Microsoft has gotten specific about how it will make IE8 comply more with standards.

The new mode, which Wilson said would be turned on by inserting a single "meta" element, will be in addition to the existing "quirks mode" that debuted in IE6 and the "standards mode" unveiled with IE7.

"We believe this approach has the best blend of allowing Web developers to easily write code to interoperable Web standards while not causing compatibility problems with current content," said Wilson. "We also think this approach allows developers to opt in to standards behavior on their own schedule and as it makes sense to them, instead of forcing developers into a responsive mode when a new version of IE has different behavior on their current pages."

Several times in his post, Wilson stressed the importance of maintaining backward compatibility with existing sites and applications, even at the expense of standards. "I think we all want to converge to a world where a Web developer doesn't have to spend much time at all testing and recoding their site for different browsers. At the same time, we can't break the Web experience on current sites for users like my mom, even for as good a reason as improving standards compliance."

As usual with posts on the IE blog, Wilson's attracted scores of comments from users and developers. Some saw the new mode as a mistake. "I want to code to standards, not browser versions," said Blaise Kal. "The ideal Web is a Web where you don't have to think about differences between browsers, because there are none. Now Microsoft is moving away from that ideal by introducing another rendering trigger."

Others saw conspiratorial shadows. "What a load of crap this is," said a user with the alias "Skorpnok." "[Microsoft is saying] 'Oh, we broke lots of sites last time, and people got over it and nothing awful happened, but we don't want to do it again because we're so worried for our customers.' Yeah right. How about: 'We want to make sure that people have to code specifically for our browser, so we keep adding proprietary crap into it'? You're a mess, Microsoft."

A sizable number of those leaving comments, however, agreed with Wilson. "I think the meta tag is a good solution. It lets your old code and pages continue working, while you can embrace the standards for new development," said George Jones.

However, some comments urged Wilson and the others on the IE8 team to reconsider and make the super standards mode the default. "Super standards should be on by default. If IE7/quirks mode is needed, the meta tag should be used. And back port this meta tag to IE7 and IE6. This would make a lot more sense," said a commenter pegged only as "MT."

But there were still others who simply rejected Wilson's entire premise.

"That's just rubbish. People shouldn't have to opt in for the best version of IE," said Eric Eggert. "The idea alone is stupid, retarded and not useful at all. It was great to see IE8 passing Acid2, but then you're coming with such a stupid thing to enable the browser to do what it was expected to do three years ago. Makes no sense. At all."

In December, Dean Hachamovitch, the IE group's general manager, touted IE8's passing of Acid2, a widely-used Web standards test. Hachamovitch's post was one of the first by the IE team to disclose anything specific about the browser upgrade, which is slated to go beta sometime in the first half of this year.

Microsoft is expected to unveil more details about IE8 at MIX08, the Microsoft-sponsored Web developer conference scheduled for March 5 to 7 in Las Vegas.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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