Microsoft debuts IE 8, aims for CSS interoperability

Microsoft aims to achieve better browser interoperability with IE 8

Microsoft has released a host of developer technologies aimed at creating rich internet applications (RIAs), including a beta of the next version of Internet Explorer (IE) that the company hopes will promote the development of applications that have the same look and feel across different browsers.

Technologies that developers can now get their hands on include betas of Internet Explorer 8, Silverlight 2 and Expression Studio 2. Silverlight 2 is an update to Microsoft's cross-browser software for building and delivering multimedia applications on the web, and Expression is Microsoft's graphic and web-design suite. Microsoft released updates of the products at its annual MIX 08 conference, which kicked off in Las Vegas today.

IE 8 made its public debut at the show in a demonstration by Dean Hachamovitch, IE general manager at Microsoft. In particular, he seemed keen to show uniformity of application experiences between IE 8 and competing browsers Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari.

Microsoft developed IE before some web standards, such as CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and RSS, were developed, and so older versions of the browser don't support them. When IE took off as the de facto standard, developers would write applications to work with IE rather than to support web standards. Microsoft also was lax in updating IE to meet the demands of standards because there was little competition in the browser market for years.

With the release and subsequent popularity of open-source browser Mozilla Firefox three years ago, IE's need to stay current with Web standards — so that web pages could be developed once to look the same across all browsers — became more important. When Microsoft developed IE 7, released in October 2006, the company had good intentions and decided to improve support of web standards with the new release.

However, web sites that were created for older versions of IE didn't work properly on IE 7, and applications developed for IE 7 didn't work the same way on Firefox and Safari. This is a problem that Microsoft is determined to remedy with IE 8, Hachamovitch says.

"We want to get the web pages to look the same on all the browsers," he says. "IE 8 will interoperate with web content in the most standards-compliant way it can."

Microsoft aims to achieve this goal in two ways. One is to support Cascading Style Sheets 2.1 (CSS), the latest version of the standard that is still in development, in IE 8. CSS is a standard technology, the specification of which is overseen by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), for separating the appearance of a web page from the content. It is the standard supported by all the major browsers.

"Today, differences between browsers simply waste too much developer time," Hachamovitch says. "Real-world interoperability begins with CSS support."

The CSS problem is not unique to Microsoft IE, says Greg DeMichillie, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. He said there are different levels of support for CSS in different browsers — "that's why you get these buggy sites where the pictures don't line up."

The reason all browsers don't support CSS in the same way is that the standard, as it's written in the W3C, is complicated, and there isn't a formal test suite to show how an application written according to the CSS standard should work in a browser, DeMichillie says.

And because of the differences in browser support for the standard, developers writing applications for the web still have to test them on different browsers to ensure they look the same once rendered online, DeMichillie says. For developers, "it is a serious problem," he says.

The other way Microsoft plans to help solve the interoperability problems is by working with the W3C to make sure the standard itself inspires uniformity across browsers. To this end, Microsoft is submitting 702 test cases for testing CSS implementations in browsers to the W3C CSS working group, and is making them available to developers through a BSD license.

"We want to make sure we are interoperating the standard the same way developers are," Hachamovitch says.

While the CSS problem "is not going to disappear overnight," Directions on Microsoft's DeMichillie says anything Microsoft can do to help remedy the situation "is a good thing."

The IE 8 beta is available on Microsoft's website, as are both the Silverlight 2 and Expression Studio 2 betas.

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