IE8: Love or Hate?

by Jon Davis 5. March 2008 23:04

Been playing with IE 8 for a few hours. Here are some initial observations.

  • Love: WebSlices. I don't like WebSlices entirely, but there's something that feels just so Web 2.0-ish and, well, evolved. If you don't know what WebSlices is yet, let me try to describe it. I'll assume anyone reading this is famiilar with either the Firefox or Internet Explorer web developer toolbar. Both toobars have the ability to hover over any DOM element and you can click on it and it will tell you all about the CSS styles and classes associated with that element, as well as perhaps give you a look into where the element is in the DOM tree. Okay, .. uh, well, that's NOT WebSlices. But that thought in mind, imagine if a web site developer marked some tags such as some div tags as "webslices". They gave them GUIDs (not literally GUIDs but, unique IDs) to make them unique. With WebSlices, forget about introspecting the element with the web dev toolbar, imagine if you could subscribe to that element, as if the element was itself a web page, or an RSS feed. Yes, you can literally put a DOM element into your Favorites. That is way cool. I am not entirely comfortable wth its implementation, though, partly in the same way I felt about IE4 channels; it's sort of a browser-centric, stuff-it-in-your-toolbar way of managng personal data, the last thing I think people want is even more junk in their Favorites menu or yet another toolbar. Microsoft got RSS subscriptions right by retaining a more modular approach, allowing for an Explorer Bar or MS Outlook integration, hopefully they'll figure something out in this respect for WebSlices.
  • Hate: Activities. It's not the technology I hate. It's the branded spam. For those unfamiliar with IE8's "Activities", it's basically the same as the Windows File Explorer's "Send To" context menu option. You can basically right-click on a selection on the web and invoke an Activity which happens to mean a URL + querystring. Will be useful, no doubt, I'm just sick of all the MS Live and MS MSN and Encarta this and Yahoo that and Wikipedia and Google Maps and, oh good grief, stop shoving it all in my face already. But I'll give it to Microsoft, they didn't do nearly as much damage as Adobe did when I installed Acrobat Professional. There are literally eight (8) (!!!) individual PDF options in my browser context menu from Adobe Acrobat. Aargh.. [~silence as I go to Options and disable ...~] I also hate the name "Activities". It sounds like calendaring or meetups.
  • Love: Inline Javascript debugger. I haven't even tried it yet, but .. OMG, Yaaay! Microsoft came through on this one! We finally get a Javascript debugger built into the browser! No more mandatory installations of Visual Studio tools, which in the script debugging department has tended to get corrupted in the integration bits more often than I've managed to debug. Mind you, this ain't Firebug. But it most certainly is an essential part of a web browser, and Microsoft is showing that they are finally starting to see the light on this one.
  • Hate: Beta 1 form fields performance in Standards mode. I'm not sure what the deal is, but on this editor page, using, I was forced to enable the Emulate IE7 mode because in Standards mode I literally had to wait about five seconds for my keyboard cursor to respond after each individual keystroke. This is just a beta glitch, though; I'll live.
  • Love: Standards mode. ACID2 passes. 'Nuff said.
  • Hate: XHTML compliance exists in parsing and rendering only. Microsoft is still using an internal IE-HTML DOM that is not XHTML-compliant, even in XHTML documents. All you have to do prove this out is, in script, alert(document.documentElement.outerHTML); and what do you see? The most obvious observation is a total disregard for XHTML 1.0 § 4.2, which reads, "Element and attribute names must be in lower case; XHTML documents must use lower case for all HTML element and attribute names. This difference is necessary because XML is case-sensitive e.g. <li> and <LI> are different tags." Why does this matter? It matters because of DHTML. It matters because there is an implemented and oft-used setter on DOM elements' innerHTML. It matters because people actually use the DOM programmatically, both in evaluating and assigning markup. It matters because the browser has a Content-Editable mode that is often used with online content editing whereby the innerHTML contents are posted to the server for viewing as content. It matters because Internet Explorer has a COM interface that can, and often is, used to parse and tidy HTML markup, or to provide a WYSIWYG rich text editor for applications. It matters because it's broken, has been all along, and has never been deemed acceptable.
  • Love: It's in my hands. Huh. That was fast, I mean it was just, what two months ago that IE8 was even named? Well, um, .. thanks, Microsoft.
kick it on

Option Of The Unthinkable: Boycott Internet Explorer

by Jon Davis 6. December 2007 18:26

I'll confess, I am a Microsoft fanboy. I always have been. I really got started in programming as an adult trying to make a living when I got inspired by Microsoft's migration from Internet Explorer 3.0 to Internet Explorer 4.0. I had already wholeheartedly embraced Internet Explorer 3.0. Microsoft had gone way out of their way to recognize the value of rich client plug-ins (ActiveX) and a strong scripting engine (Active Script) that, frankly, kicked Netscape Navigator's butt. But then Internet Explorer 4.0 was announced, and the world beheld the news with much awe. Netscape 4.0 had, only months prior, announced support for "dynamic HTML", which in retrospect was little more than what I call "flying layers" and dynamic styles. It didn't really have a DOM. It didn't support dynamic content, for example. You couldn't say, "element.innerHTML = ...", for example. All you could do was put stuff in <layer> tags and position them on different parts of the web page or hide them -- flying layers. Whoopty doo. I'm a programmer, give me an object model, argh! But Microsoft knew the need. They are a developer platform company. They get it. Or got it, in the days of IE4. Internet Explorer 4 revolutionized the way software was made. Even just by introducing the Internet Explorer document object model, Microsoft gave us a powerful yet simple object lesson (pun unintended) about objects (again, pun unintended). It was the combination of playing with the DOM and reading Java books that my comprehension about OOP and the value of objects-based programming (a la business objects in VB5) began to sink in. And then I became a man.

Fast forward to 2007. The genuises behind Microsoft's Trident team, who built the amazing and spectacular browser that was Internet Explorer 4.0, had long ago abandoned Internet Explorer to go off and develop a Windows technology that was more suited for scalability and rich graphical layout. That technology was code-named Avalon, and released as Windows Presentation Foundation. Apparently, either some of them, or a completely different group of engineers (Macintosh engineers, perhaps) went off and developed WPF again, from scratch, duplicating WPF's efforts, in a microcosmic bundle called WPF/Everwhere or, as we now call it, Silverlight. Meanwhile, who knows who else was involved in the building of Expression Web, but apparently a whole spanking new layout and rendering engine was created for Expression Web, rather than the traditional Trident that was used previously with FrontPage.

All this while, Internet Explorer has been resting on its laurels, improving only by making minor bug fixes in CSS support and security, and adding tabs. The tired old Trident engine is still a powerful one, but it has apparently become too kludgy to risk too many more changes, and it is too heavily used throughout the industry with its COM interface to risk breaking third party apps by rewriting it.

At the same time, Safari, Netscape Navigator, and Opera are constantly evolving. Now Firefox has componentization, not unlike Internet Explorer's COM object. Now they're the ones embracing and extending, leaving Internet Explorer trailing behind. Now they're the ones setting the rules. They're the ones teaming up, forming working groups like WHATG to demand improvements on the development environment that is the web browser. Now Safari, Opera, and Firefox are innovating with proposing HTML 5, with or without Microsoft's cooperation, rendering up a canvas using simple Javascript and markup, and, most importantly, winning and maintaining respect from the community by trying to maintain openness about standards and interopability using open Internet protocols and standards.

Microsoft knew what they needed to do to play their cards right. They demonstrated this with their openness with Visual Studio 2008 and related tools, sharing CTP releases more than a year before its release. They demonstrated it in Internet Explorer 4 by making jaw-dropping, astounding promises that were not only kept but demonstrated many months ahead of release.

These days, however, Internet Explorer has become something akin to Microsoft Excel. It gets a revised toolbar, but the core engine is a tired old bag that doesn't want to be exercised. Microsoft's IE team apparently retains a few dedicated and hard-core developers to sit around and poke at its CSS support and security issues. All the while, though, it finds itself too heavily patched, too bloated, too encumbered with baggage, that it simply cannot keep up with the world in which it lives--the Internet.

So it comes as no surprise to me that a blog post like this would pop up on Microsoft's web site:

This kind of communication is extremely forthcoming about what Microsoft thinks of Internet Explorer. It tells us just how much they have forgotten their first love of their browser. It tells us that there are people over there who are doing their jobs, day in, day out, keep their mouths shut, keep the gears turning, make some improvements, go home to the kids, sleep well, come back in and do it again. They're not passionate; they're corporate grunts. It reminds us that Microsoft forgot what "laurels" means in the dictionary:


rest on (one's) laurels
To rely on one's past achievements instead of working to maintain or advance one's status or reputation. 

It also reminds us that Microsoft has completely forgotten that Internet Explorer is a development platform. Not only that, but it is a Windows-only development platform, one that Microsoft should care deeply about for their own proprietary sake. And development platforms, as was demonstrated in Visual Studio, demand early communication.

My first love with programming came from Internet Explorer itself. DHTML jumpstarted me to make me who I am as a developer. It's what made me proud to be a Microsoft bigot, proud to choose Microsoft over the others, proud even to break the common sense rules of web site design and actually not bother to build web sites that worked okay in Netscape Navigator, knowing that the huge market saturation that became of Internet Explorer was sufficient to tolerate the losses of those who could not experience what I was implementing into the browser. (I haven't done that in many, many years. For this long, I have respected the expressions of frustrations throughout the Internet of animosity with this practice. However, my patience is wearing thin with Microsoft's incapacity to keep up with the rest of the community with regard to established standards, the perfect opposite and equally disruptive practice of what they did back in the days of IE4.) Sure, Active Server Pages and Visual Basic's powerful COM objects and MTS and SQL Server--the whole DNA platform--contributed to my attitude about Microsoft early on. I saw it all as extremely powerful and leveragable, a developer's dream. But it was IE that made the Microsoft platform fulfilling and enjoyable.

But now I am feeling such an aching burden in my heart. I feel like Microsoft's complacency has developed into betrayal. They don't care about client-side web developers anymore, I feel, not unless those are Silverlight folks.

The above-referenced link to that blog post is really what riled me up to post my blog post here. These words in its comments from other readers describe how I feel as well:

  • "'In the meantime, please don’t mistake silence for inaction.' Too late... while MS might not be keen to adapt to the culture of the web, the internet as a whole generally values openness, transparency and communication. For such an important tool that holds huge influence on the web, the pain caused to web developers and users alike by the MS's silence is magnified."
  • "In the end, silence is a good way to create false expectations and alienate your developers and customers who care enough to follow this blog.  People who follow this blog are not exactly your casual users.  We are your power users.  We are your core developers.  We are your fans."
  • "I cannot believe that 1 year after the release of IE7 that the first "news" about the next version is that you have FINALLY decided on a name?  As Microsoft proved with with IE6, it would totally be irresponsible of anyone to mistake silence with inactivity - oh wait - that is exactly what silence meant.  Given Microsoft's recent track record with IE, why should anyone assume otherwise?"
  • "The next version of Internet Explorer will likely have hundreds of millions of users during its life-cycle. By ignoring the developer community you once had, and now making light of your horrendous business strategy, you've done nothing but destroy what credibility you once had and you've earned the animosity and contempt of people who will eventually work with your product on a daily basis. Also, you hurt my feelings."

There were a few that I couldn't help but laugh at -- I don't agree (of course) but, knowing where they come from and what pain caused to provoke them, they are appreciable. Like, "Kill it and kill yourselves. Douse yourselves in gasoline and set yourselves on fire."

Let me just say this about Silverlight. Dude, you're stealing from us what matters, which is Microsoft's time, money, and infatuous love and devotion. A decade of HTML 4 and XHTML 1 (which Internet Explorer never fully supported) is a REALLY long time in Internet years. My co-workers have been working in the industry for half that much time; perhaps most of Microsoft's development teams are in the same boat! I'll care about Silverlight when it goes beyond being a toy video player, and beyond being a plug-in viewer that can run C#/Python/Ruby apps (with flying layers), and becomes the basis on which a new Internet Explorer engine is built.

Now perhaps Expression Web's new layout engine is better suited to replace Internet Explorer's layout engine. Neither Expression Web nor Silverlight support IFRAMEs, framesets, COM/ActiveX controls, Java applets, or browser plug-ins of some other kind. I'd place my bets that Expression Web is much further along in being available to support these things, as it already supports HTML whereas Silverlight does not.

On the other hand, perhaps I was mistaken, or heard incorrectly, that Expression Web has a new layout engine that's completely distinct from Trident. I don't know.

In any case, I am so disgusted by Internet Explorer's complacency that I've decided to draw a line. Microsoft will surely prove that they care about Internet Explorer in the context of client-side web developers, and give the browser the kind of innovations that a competitive browser market demands, then there will be no more room to grumble. I can understand Microsoft's dissatisfaction with the industry that it would provoke Microsoft into the courtroom with regard to browser tie-ins with the operating system. To that, all I can say is, lighten up, pretend, just pretend, that you were wrong and they were right, and figure out how to plan your operating system integrations more adaptable in the future.

Microsoft of all people have a great rendering engine in WPF that they can leverage into HTML 5's canvas, and another great rendering engine in Expression Web that they can pound into the browser shell we know as Internet Explorer, if they can be sure to get their network stack, COM support, and more, all working correctly.

If, however, Internet Explorer 8 is just another name, with a prettier toolbar, a few new CSS additions, and no real look at HTML 5, then I'd say, forget 'em. By then, which will be at least another year from now, the clock will be reset, and we will be waiting for IE 9, hoping that that one will have something worth shouting about. That clock will require another two years. And it's really just not worth it.

So here, I'm drawing a line. What's it going to be? Does Microsoft care?

Microsoft is family. I've never been employed by Microsoft--and believe me, I used to dream of being employed by Microsoft but I couldn't handle being over there without making splashes of rocking the boat as one of their annoying little junior programmers--but I've invested almost entirely into them and placed all of my chips on them. I've "worked with" them, as a third party, for a decade now, and I know how they think. Yes, they've been complacent with Internet Explorer. Yes, they've forgotten how to innovate on that platform.

However, I think they have the talent and technology bases available at their disposal to make an overhaul of Internet Explorer possible.

While little if any of the following is going to happen, just imagine the innovative integration of all of these into the same web browser:

  • Expression Web's layout engine, add CSS2 flawlessness, limited CSS3 support, full support for frames, plug-ins, and COM objets
  • Silverlight's "script engine" (Jscript, C#, VB.NET, Ruby, Python) fully exposed two-ways between the CLR and the W3C DOM, and the basis for a Canvas context and SVG support
  • Scaled-down implementation of Visual Studio 2008's powerful and introspective script debugger (but perhaps integrated into the browser, and without the vulnerability of registry/tie-in corruption of the script debugger)

Add to this HTML 5 support and proper XHTML support (with in-line DTD extensions support) and you've got a winner.

Chances are, we'll see less than half of this. But if we only see a few security improvements and a few new improvements to CSS, or somesuch, I'm sorry, I'm afraid I will find myself returning the favor of betrayal, and get on board with the other bandwagon. I will tinker with Firefox's componentization, something I've been wanting to tinker with anyway for a long time, and I'll start building my client-side code out based on features that Internet Explorer just doesn't have, like next-gen ECMAScript support and Canvas support.

IE will be there as a standby for plain old HTML 4 apps. But meanwhile, if I want Silverlight, I'll host it in Firefox or use Firefox's canvas, thanks.

So here's where I stand on this. Microsoft, if you're reading this, and care at all about my mere opinion, let me tell you what I think. When you say, "don't confuse silence for inaction," I think that your actions are meaningless. We don't want timely deliverables, so much as we want quality and feature-complete ones that are kept in check with the demands and expectations of your user base. I'll gladly wait until 2010 if I can JUST KNOW by your own word when it is coming, and that it is feature-complete. We don't necessarily want you to tell us what you're up to on your blog. We want to know that you to listen to what we think of the product when we all say the same things about your product in our blogs. We want to know that you care not for your reputation in your keeping silent, but for your user base, which means the web developer, not just the end user. We don't want your authortiative declarations of what is coming. We want your outspoken observations of what you are finding us most commonly demanding.

And we want those observations converted into promises. Promises that can be kept. Promises that you care about Windows playing nice with the Internet community by submitting to standards bodies outside of your own ego--CSS3, HTML5, SVG, and PNG, not just XAML, C#, and VBxx.

Project manager(s), you've got a big responsibility on your shoulders, millions of people are depending on your product. Deal with it. Stop cowering under your desk--get out there and shake hands with the people who care the most about your product, the web developers.

You're losing us.

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About the author

Jon Davis (aka "stimpy77") has been a programmer, developer, and consultant for web and Windows software solutions professionally since 1997, with experience ranging from OS and hardware support to DHTML programming to IIS/ASP web apps to Java network programming to Visual Basic applications to C# desktop apps.
Software in all forms is also his sole hobby, whether playing PC games or tinkering with programming them. "I was playing Defender on the Commodore 64," he reminisces, "when I decided at the age of 12 or so that I want to be a computer programmer when I grow up."

Jon was previously employed as a senior .NET developer at a very well-known Internet services company whom you're more likely than not to have directly done business with. However, this blog and all of have no affiliation with, and are not representative of, his former employer in any way.

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