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No More IE Development Could Hold Back The Web

No More IE Development Could Hold Back The Web

by , 2:30 PM EDT, June 16th, 2003

On Friday, we reported that there'll be no more development on Internet Explorer for the Mac (today's small security update notwithstanding). This announcement comes hot on the heels of two more: that there will be no more updates for the Windows version, Internet Explorer 6, until whenever Longhorn comes out; the other is that AOL have signed a deal to licence Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player 9 for their America Online service.

Believe it or not, all three are linked to spell Bad News: not necessarily for Mac users, but for the Web in general. Ending development on IE for both platforms says that Microsoft has conquered the Web, sees no reason to keep innovating in the browser department, and prefers to put all their energies into whatever the next iteration of Windows will bring.

Last Friday's announcement isn't something that caused a great deal of tears among many Mac users -- there are plenty of other choices available, and most opinions ranged from the "So what?" to the "Woohoo!" And yes, we've got Safari, which looks to be out of beta very soon. We've got our choice of Gecko-based browsers like Camino, Firebird, Mozilla and Netscape. We've even got a new version of OmniWeb to look forward to. Many Mac users have made the switch to the alternatives almost completely, saving their copy of IE only for the times that some activities need it.

On the other side of the coin, the average Joe Wintel is lucky if they've ever heard of a browser asides from Internet Explorer, let alone actually use one. Some of them might remember the days of old, when there was 'another' browser called Netscape 4, and in comparison to Internet Explorer it just didn't cut it. Among people who have taken the time to find out, Internet Explorer is well known for its rendering bugs, susceptibility to security exploits, less-than-fantastic respect for standards, and generally shabby behaviour. But that's not something our friend Joe Wintel knows, so the Web is being designed with IE in mind.

This is not the way the Web is supposed to be. It's supposed to work for everyone, in any browser. It's supposed to work whether it's seen in a visual browser with all the bells and whistles, accessible to plain old text-based browsers with speech synthesis or Braille displays, gracefully degraded to a tiny resolution on your PDA or cellphone, or viewed on a TV browser like WebTV or a game console. All this is possible right now, but just isn't done widely enough because of this 'Best viewed with' mentality. The lack of credibility can't help, either - why bother with 'supporting Macs' at all? If Macs don't work with our Windows-only, ActiveX'd and VBScripted intranet, why buy them?

Take it from someone who does this Web stuff to pay the bills: it's hard enough to convince a client that they really don't benefit from a 800KB Flash intro page with blinking text, let alone introducing them to niceties like equal access for the disabled. It's a nuisance even broaching the topic of other browsers, and the death of Internet Explorer on the Mac makes that job just a little bit harder. It's the minority of web designers, not the majority, who can be bothered making things work properly in other browsers. Fortunately, that minority is growing.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's announcement that we will not see any improvements to the Windows version of Explorer until Longhorn comes out -- naturally, that new browser will only work with Longhorn -- means that the 90%+ of people using Windows and IE will need to wait until at least 2005 to get an update to an already two-year-old browser. Then add on a few more years for Longhorn's market share to increase far enough; bigger market share makes it worth our while to push the envelope. Don't forget that AOL will be using Microsoft's offering for the next seven years, and Media Player while they're at it. (C'mon, you think they'll spend money on Netscape/Mozilla when they get IE for free?)

There are so many great techniques and technologies available to us right now, which we still can't implement in a widespread manner thanks to Explorer's shortcomings. We could use smarter, more reliable standards-based design to reduce our workload, save our clients some money, and make smarter, more compatible sites. We can make site-wide changes to the design of hundreds of files in no time flat, and break free of the time-consuming nuisance of mangling tables for layout, using Cascading Style Sheets. We could use all the features of the Portable Network Graphics format to give our images beautiful, trouble-free alpha transparency.

We could actually move ahead, away from the 'Netscape 4-compatible-vs-IE 4-compatible' mess of hacks, 'browser sniffers' and cruft from six years ago, and start building the Web into what it should be -- a common platform for all kinds of devices. Yet Internet Explorer can't even get some of the basics right, and we're expected to 'standardise' to it. We have to wait for a good few years for the most widely-used Web browser out there to catch up to things that Gecko and KHTML-based browsers can deliver right now.

For the next few years, there are two things that can happen. One is that the Web will come to a halt while we all 'standardise' for an incomplete, buggy browser, while we wait patiently for whatever Longhorn brings. The other is that we - the designers, the users and the developers - can make the choice to stick to the use of standards, start using better browsers, encourage the development of competing products, and take advantage of the hole that Internet Explorer's demise on both platforms will leave.

I'm rooting for the latter, but there's grey days ahead.

Raena Armitage keeps herself busy with various freelance projects. She lives in Hobart, Australia.

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