Browser Boondoggle

The promise -- and the hype -- of version 5 browsers is this: They promise to be more compatible with the standards that will make the Web a better place to work. Will Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5.0 live up to that promise?

The promise -- and the hype -- of version 5 browsers is this: They promise to be more compatible with the standards that will make the Web a better place to work. The Internet industry has worked hard on concepts such as extensibility, a common object model, and standard scripting technology. These technologies will eventually deliver on the promise of a vendor-neutral, standards-based platform for Web publishing and applications.

Much ink is likely to be spilled on the subject of whether or not Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer 5.0 (IE5) fulfills that promise. All that press can be summed up in two words: It doesn’t.

This failure means Web application designers are still burdened with adapting their code for specific platforms.

The release of IE5 should have moved us beyond the problem of adapting code for every visitor’s browser. In its quest to provide more tools for Web developers, Microsoft has concentrated on integrating its vision of building applications for the Web into its browser -- sometimes at the expense of Web standards.

As an example, IE5 doesn’t completely support the World Wide Web Consortium’s Document Object Model (DOM) -- a standard that Microsoft helped to build. Microsoft is likely to respond that many of the features of the DOM and its associated connections to ECMAScript are still possible to support. Unfortunately, supporting them using the technologies built into IE5 requires using proprietary Microsoft techniques and features that will break when a Netscape user visits the same page.

Another example is Internet Explorer’s adoption of behaviors. Behaviors are a proposed property of cascading style sheets (CSS) that allow Web designers to separate the content of an HTML element -- such as the text between a <P> paragraph tag and its corresponding </P> tag -- from script that manipulates the element on the page. The goals of the behavior technology include separating scripting components from page content, building reusable code, and making complex pages more manageable. Microsoft has proposed that behaviors become a part of the CSS standard. They aren’t yet, and so their use is limited to those sites that are confident that they have an installed base of IE5 clients.

Of course that’s exactly what we’ve been trying to avoid. What developers need is the ability to deploy applications and technologies with confidence, knowing they will work on any browser that implements standards.

When browser vendors claim to be implementing standards, it’s important to remember how the standards process works. Any participating vendor can submit a proposal for consideration in the standards process. Some vendors are tempted to advertise that they are standards-compliant when, in fact, they are implementing draft standards or protocols that have limited support in the standards community.

That’s not the real issue for me. Standards adoption and deployment has always been a gradual process. The new generation of browsers will do a better job of implementing standards than their predecessors and I expect that subsequent versions will be even better.

What alarms me is the sheer size of Microsoft’s new browser. It is so large that I worry many people will be discouraged from downloading it. Even the minimal installation takes hours to download and install using typical consumer connections to the Internet. If it takes forever to install, many consumers will avoid the hassle.

If people and customers avoid implementing the most recent release of the browsers, then the evolutionary deployment of standards is delayed. That’s a disaster for the Web.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The current version of Gecko, the Open Source version of the next generation of Netscape’s browser, supports important new standards and is tiny by comparison to Internet Explorer 5. The next release of Netscape’s browser probably won’t be as light-weight as Gecko, but it proves it is possible to solve the problem of deploying standards while avoiding the cost of downloading a 20 megabyte installation file.

The gigantism that affects Internet Explorer might actually represent an opportunity for the beleaguered Netscape. It may be able to deliver a browser that does a better job of implementing Web standards, and that would be immediately applauded by many in the Web development community. If they were able to deliver the browser in a package normal Web consumers could afford to download and install, they might regain a part of the market that has moved to Internet Explorer’s superior features. What would be really exciting would be a browser that implemented standards in a package people felt they could afford to deploy.

There are going to be lots of voices that decry Microsoft’s spotty implementation of key Web standards. While I’m disappointed that Microsoft hasn’t moved farther down the path of implementing key Web standards, I’m not joining that chorus. Instead, I’m hoping that the next release of Internet Explorer will come in a version that encourages all users to download and install it. --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at