IE8, Version Targeting, and the Ruckus it’s Causing

Posted: January 28, 2008 Comments(6)

Last week was quite enlightening for Web developers the world over. With the release of A List Apart No. 251, including Beyond DOCTYPE: Web Standards, Forward Compatibility, and IE8 by Aaron Gustafson and From Switches to Targets: A Standardista’s Journey by Eric Meyer, the biggest debate of the year was sparked.

If you haven’t read these two articles, please do so now. They’re required reading from here on out.

It has been a long time since a single issue has raised such unanimous controversy, and the resulting discussion should be very well read and well understood by Web developers everywhere; it’s very important to have an opinion on this issue. More importantly, it’s imperative that your opinion be well researched and based upon supportive facts.

As with many controversies, there are plenty of people on each side of the figurative fence, each with strong arguments to support their opinion. I feel very adamant about researching both ‘sides’ before developing a strong opinion of my own, so here are a number of articles written in response to this issue (listed in absolutely no particular order; not even chronological):

That’s a huge list. A huge list with some even bigger names on it. The list is far from comprehensive regarding the reaction of Web developers as a whole, and by the time this article is published, the list will more than likely be absent of a number of links that should be included. Please, provide further reading in the comments at the end of the article, as this issue deserves the attention of everyone.

The response thus far is nothing short of amazing. Many have come to an instant conclusion after reading the ALA articles; some in support and others in complete opposition. That fact alone tells me that there is a lot to consider, a lot to learn from, and a lot to talk about. Luckily, it seems as though a huge population is ready and willing to have the discussion; not something you see very often (anywhere).

I must admit: while I find the discussion surrounding the issue fascinating, I’m in part disappointed in how some have chosen to reply to articles and comments written on this subject. The opinion of everyone should be valued and respected, no one deserves to be talked down upon simply for offering their thoughts; especially the thoughts of some of the brightest minds in the industry. Please take care when offering replies in public.

Moving on.

My opinion on the matter

To be completely honest, my initial reaction to the proposal was positive. That is until I read into the proposed implementation. In summation: if we as Web developers do not opt in to this solution, we’re stuck with a version of IE that we may not want. I would prefer instead to know that if I open a document in IE8, IE8 is going to render that document to the best of its ability.

I will admit, at this point I’ve approached this issue as a developer, not an end user. I feel that looking at an issue from multiple angles is a very important aspect of opinion-forming, so I’m going to take time to think about this issue as more than a Web developer (or at least try to). There is also the business angle to take into account. When it comes to IE, there is quite a bit of money involved. Although it’s viewed as a problem, there is an abundance of software highly dependent on specific versions of Internet Explorer. Making abrupt changes to IE would result in glacial adoption (read: IE7) which is counterproductive for everyone. As it stands with the client websites I work on, I now face an IE population divided in half between 6 and 7. While expected, it’s definitely not ideal. Throwing a third browser into the mix will shake things up even more; what’s the best way to handle that?

At the end of the day, should this proposal completely pan out, Microsoft will have a boatload of additional work to deal with. (Knowledgeable) Web developers will add another line to their markup. While making claim that it’s really that simple is far from accurate, but at the same time it’s something to analyze, don’t you think? The proposed solution seems to account for both the end user, who doesn’t want a browser upgrade to “break the Internet”, as well as Web developers, who want to constantly and consistently innovate in our medium.

I honestly can’t say whether I’m for or against this proposition entirely. I plan to develop my opinion over time by continuing to follow this debate. Reading the opinions of those who have lead the industry from the ground up is a great opportunity, and their arguments carry much more weight than those masquerading an underlying hatred for all things proprietary, all things Microsoft. I can estimate that it will be some time before I’m able to have a solid, definitive opinion, but I’m certain the more I read and write about it, the better off I’ll be.

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  1. My initial reaction was very cool, as well – but the more I think about it, the more I like it. I don’t see this becoming much of an issue for a couple of years anyways, because IE6 & 7 will probably linger for quite a while. If you have to bake in support for the old Trident engines, choosing which one IE8 renders with won’t make that much of a difference.

    Also, I’m encouraged by using alternate methods of sending the “X-UA-Compatible” value, like HTTP headers. Also, Eric’s suggestion that new doctypes like HTML5 be rendered in standards mode by default gives me hope that we might not need to bother with this in the future at all.

  2. Thanks for providing a new and very valuable facet to consider. I maintain a user interface for a web application that has tens of thousands of users on a daily basis. If one of the many mission-critical features were to fail on IE 8, our customers would feel they made a mistake upgrading the browser and avoid it in the future. Not to mention the trouble yours truly would be in.

    The benefit of the meta solution is that control over the rendering engine is is placed squarely in the web developer’s hands. S/he decides which mode the rendering engine should use. And if something unexpected goes south, we flip the switch.

    I think compromising automatic forward progress is a decent trade-off for the control gained. I foresee myself locking sites to IE 7 until it dies down to 10% usage or so. Then I will move to IE 8. I have no problem holding back or dumbing down ‘extras’ for IE users. If MS wants their users to have the best experience possible, they’ll have to push the new versions and discontinue support of the old.

    Most of the reaction I’m seeing loses focus and goes right into how IE has failed repeatedly in the past. I think we’re all just fed up with workarounds and on it’s face this looks like one more. The difference is this one is much easier to manage.

  3. I have posted most of my thoughts on my own blog, but here’s my summary.

    I believe that this change has been made for users and site owners who don’t necessarily use standards, because they don’t care or just don’t know.

    If all the sites that these site owners created broke when a user upgraded their browser what would most users think? I certainly don’t think they would be passing it off on a buggy renderer or lack of standards in past IE versions. They would just worry that they had done something wrong or that the web was broken.

    However, these site owners who know nothing or very little of standards will be unlikely to have read the A List Apart articles, let alone the rest of them linked above, and will not be heading around their sites adding meta tags they don’t know about.

    I think Microsoft are admitting to have been poor at standards before and really are trying to improve, without ruining the experience for the users. As developers who have always had to circumnavigate IE errors, this is just another thing to deal with (one which can be avoided using the HTML 5 DOCTYPE it seems, which is probably where I’m heading to).

    I think, in all, that this is a good thing for the web and that we can and will get through this.

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