Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Tue 18th Mar, 2008

Standard Observations

Simon Rumble mentioned Joel Spolsky's post on web standards and it really is an excellent read. The fundamental point is that as a standard grows, testing any arbitrary device's compliance with it it grows harder. Given that, for rendering HTML, not only do we have a couple of 'official' standards: HTML 4, XHTML, etc., but we also have a number of 'defacto' standards - IE 5, IE 5.5, IE 6, IE 7, Firefox, Opera, etc. etc. etc ad nauseam. For a long time, Microsoft has banked on their desktop monopoly to lever their own defacto standards onto us, but I think they never intended it to be because of bugs in their own software. And now the chickens are coming home to roost, and they're stuck with either being bug-for-bug compatible with their own software (i.e. making it more expensive to produce) or breaking all those old web pages (i.e. making it much more unpopular).

I wonder if there was anyone in Microsoft Internet Explorer development team around the time they were producing 5.0 that was saying, "No, we can't ship this until it complies with the standard; that way we know we'll have less work to do in the future." If so, I feel doubly sorry for you: you've been proved right, but you're still stuck.

However, this is not a new problem to us software engineers. We've invented various test-based coding methodologies that ensure that the software probably obeys the standard, or at least can be proven to obey some standard (as opposed to being random). We've also seen the nifty XSLT macro that takes the OpenFormula specification and produces an OpenDocument Spreadsheet that tests the formula - I can't find any live links to it but I saved a copy and put it here. So it shouldn't actually be that hard to go through and implement, if not all, then a good portion of the HTML standard as rigorous tests and then use browser scripting to test its actual output. Tell me that someone isn't doing this already.

But the problem isn't really with making software obey the standard - although obviously Microsoft has had some problem with that in the past, and therefore I don't feel we can trust them in the future. The problem is that those pieces of broken software have formed a defacto standard that isn't mapped by a document. In fact, they form several inconsistent and conflicting standards. If you want another problem, it's that people writing web site code to detect browser type in the past have written something like:

if ($browser eq 'IE') {
    if ($version <= 5.0) {
    } elsif ($version <= 5.5) {
    } else {
When IE 7 came along and broke new stuff, they added:
    } elsif ($version <= 6.0) {
It doesn't take much of a genius to work out that you can't just assume that this current version is the last version of IE, or that new versions of IE aren't necessarily going to be bug-for-bug compatible with the last version. So really the people writing the websites are to blame.

Joel doesn't identify Microsoft's correct response in this situation. The reason for this is that we're all small coders reading Joel's blog and we just don't have the power of Microsoft. It should be relatively easy for them to write a program that goes out and checks web sites to see whether they render correctly in IE 8, and then they should work together with the web site owners whose web sites don't render correctly to fix this. Microsoft does a big publicity campaign about how it's cleaning up the web to make sure it's all standard compliant for its new standards-compliant browser, they call it a big win, everyone goes back to work without an extra headache. Instead, they're carrying on like it's not their fault that the problem exists in the first place.

Microsoft's talking big about how it's this nice friendly corporate citizen that plays nice these days - let's see it start fixing up some of its past mistakes.

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