For how long will Microsoft hold back the web?

It’s 2010. Despite rumors to the contrary, the web is not dead. In fact, it is thriving more than ever (unless bandwidth consumption is your main metric). Yet, it is standing at a crossroads.

The web is served primarily through web-browsers (Desktop or otherwise), and as such is very dependent on their capabilities. As developers and entrepreneurs try to push the envelope of what is possible in a web-browser, browser makers have been trying to accommodate them – offering a plethora of features that previously required much work to emulate. However we always have to worry about the lowest common denominator – and that, for the last 12 years and beyond, has been Microsoft’s offering, Internet Explorer.

And now, Internet Explorer 9, the latest in the much maligned browser line – has been released in Beta. This is (was?) a chance for Microsoft to raise the bar or at least meet it, to start paying their dues for years of anguish inflicted on the unsuspecting web-browsing population. Yet early impressions are not promising, with many missing features that are long in waiting which means we should ready ourselves for another decade of backwards compatibility of yesteryear standards.

I’m wondering, does Microsoft understand how much damage it inflicts on the industry by not catching up with it’s competitors? lets review:

  • Major incompatibility with other browsers causing significant increase in web development costs. I would estimate that 10-15% of current web development efforts are spent on making IE specific modifications and fixes. Some quick numbers – there would be just below $4 billion VC money invested in web ventures this year. Including personal investments, internal development by existing companies / individuals, around $10-$15 billion will be spent on web development this year. This means that Microsoft is costing the industry a mind-boggling $1-$1.5 billion a year! (and increasing). For some companies, the extra 10-15% spent on new features / improvements rather than fixing IE related issues could be the difference between success and failure.
  • IE specific sites and sites not compatible with IE causing personal anguish and frustration. It’s hard to quantify mental damages, but a significant amount of people this year will encounter sites they cannot run in their not IE browser and or sites that are broken on their IE. Sometimes the site breakage is not widespread but at specific critical points – such as losing all your data after filling out a 5 page form. The loss of work hours, the accumulation of stress and resentment (not to mention specifically by web developers and technical support staff), all contribute to more damages to the industry. The reputation and brand of some companies will take a hit. Some will lose their jobs. And Internet Explorer will continue going backwards.
  • Slowing down the evolution of web technologies: Web applications and services have won the day. Standards and technologies are emerging to provide a better experience natively in the browser. However, we cannot use those standards and technologies on real-world sites since more than 50% of the browser market will not be able to use it. If you can’t use new technologies, what is the point of attempting to innovate? sure, workarounds can be found – but there’s always compromise.

The most incredible aspect of this to me, is how ignorant Microsoft is of this problem. “You’ve been living in a dream world” is what Morpheous tells Neo in The Matrix, but he might as well be talking to the Microsoft IE team.

Lets go over some of the missing features:

1. Missing support for text decoration properties such as text-shadow, text-stretch, text-wrap and others. No support for text-shadow in 2010. I mean, really? text-shadow has been supported by other vendors for more than a year now. As web design progresses as a media, textual effects such as this are used to improve visual definition of websites. Yet, for this really simple decoration we have two choices currently – implement shadowed text as images, which is less accessible, maintainable, consumes more bandwidth and overall a pain, OR have less than 50% of our visitors see the design as intended. text-shadow is currently listed as missing from IE9 by Microsoft.

2. Web-forms. CSS3 gives us more pseudo-selectors to use with forms to replace functionality previously implemented using Javascript. This includes the :default, :valid, :invalid, :in-range and other selectors as well as placeholders, multiple file-uploads and autofocus properties that allow us improve form interactions without writing extra code to do so.

3. Gradients. I guess those would have to remain images for the next 10 or so years. Also, CSS-transforms, CSS-transitions are missing. Those too would have to be implemented in a non-native fashion via Javascript libraries.

4. HTML5 features – including but not limited to Web-sockets, Geolocation, web workers, semantic new tags (section, article, header, nav …), native drag-and-drop, placeholder attribute, File API, Web SQL, and on and on …

If this were any other browser, I’d be less concerned. After all, this is only a Beta release, and you can still push updates even when the official version is out. However, we are talking Microsoft here. In the past, browser updates were pushed via Windows Update – which some people have disabled, some prefer to postpone as much as possible and some only install critical updates. Why tie updates with what seems to most people as system-wide updates? why not perform the update in the most natural environment – the browser? (see – Mozilla Firefox).

Microsoft is also not known for releasing fixes to standards compliance after the official release. Making things worse is the rate of release for new versions and phasing out support for older ones (IE6 will still be supported until 2014!). In the time it took Microsoft to go from IE8 to IE9 (Beta), Google Chrome went from version 2 to version 5. My concern is that what we see now is what we’ll have to support until IE9 phases out sometime in about 10 years or so.

Concluding this rant / vent, I’m issuing a plea to Microsoft – please pick yourself up and at least support the common features that have been supported by all of your competitors for a while now. You can still make it (almost) right. I’ll be waiting for your release-candidate, and hopefully I’ll be spending less time maintaining it than its predecessors.

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