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A New Culture At Microsoft? Only Time Will Tell

by Trevor Bauknight

Published on this site: April 27th, 2005 - See more articles from this month...

It was like a refreshing breeze on a stifling summer day this past Friday as news of Microsoft's plans for IE7 spilled out onto the Web. A IEBlog entry by Chris Wilson, a member of the IE development team, finally dropped two details that may change website development permanently. That is to say, it's refreshing if you believe it, and it may change website development permanently if it actually happens.

The announcement that Microsoft would include proper (AKA the way spelled out in the standard everybody else has chosen to follow) PNG support and would remove the "major inconsistencies" in its CSS implementation may actually, for the first time since the divisive release of Internet Explorer, make it possible for web designers to create a page that looks and works the same on all browsers without resorting to crazy tricks to make it work.

The first beta version of the new browser is due out sometime this summer, and Wilson states that he and the rest of the development team are looking forward to the feedback they'll get when they do the release. Judging by the feedback the brief announcement generated, I can only say that I hope they get it right with the release.

It used to be easier to be skeptical of Microsoft's intentions. After all, IE6 is undoubtedly one of the most hated pieces of software ever to be foisted on the Internet population. It's inclusion as "part of the OS" in the initial release of Windows XP in 2001 only served to muddy the waters of website development and its widespread doption-by-default ensured that creating a website that conformed to the standards set forth by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was useful to about 15% of the people who might actually see it and that your work had just begun.

So What's Actually Happening?

We won't know until summer, it appears. A March 9 posting by Wilson hinted that the development team would be posting some details later and solicited feedback on specific things people wanted to see. The 4,000-odd responses that generated (many of them unhappy in tone) made it pretty clear that people wanted to see a relatively small set of improvements. Almost everyone who responded seriously asked for improvement to PNG support, so that transparency would finally work and the Web could finally move away from GIFs. Most also demanded changes to the support of Cascading Style Sheets in some way.

So Wilson says that's what they'll be doing. Well, that's not all. They do have a few small security matters to address; but that should be child's play after nearly five years of what looked for all the world like the abandonment of the program. According to Wilson, the PNG fix is already coded. According to Wilson, it had been "on our radar for a long time." Small wonder. The first PNG standard was adopted nine years ago and was supported by other browsers prior to the release of IE5.

Microsoft has the luxury of moving slow and doing what it wants to do with respect to standards. They ship the browser with every copy of the OS, and practically every PC maker ships a copy of the OS with the hardware; so most people end up with IE by default and moving over to something else has been a pretty big hassle prior to the development of Firefox, the stand-alone browser component of the Mozilla project that grew out of the open-sourcing of Netscape. One begins to suspect that the recent buzz about Firefox may be spurring action in Redmond; and like another recent pleasant development, Microsoft appears to be planning to retaliate by actually improving its offering rather than by destroying the competition by sheer economic might.

Changing Culture At Microsoft?

A few months ago, at the height of the malware onslaught, Microsoft bought a company called GIANT, which made what was considered to be the top-of-the-line anti-spyware utility on the market. MS rebranded the GIANT program, and released a beta version to the public without announcing how future updates to the program would be conveyed. There was a good deal of speculation and skepticism surrounding it, and many (myself included) wondered aloud if it weren't a cynical ploy to generate income from a problem caused initially by the innate lack of system security in Windows. But Microsoft came through, and eventually announced that future upgrades to the program would be free (at least to anyone running a legitimate copy of Windows, which leaves out a lot of people).

Microsoft may have finally awoken to the realization that its customers would be far better served by actually being able to use their computers without having to pay for extra third-party software to protect them. Maybe someone in Redmond is forced to use an unprotected Windows box with an always-on, non-firewalled connection to the Internet just to see how sick a computer can get. Or maybe they just realized that the Open Source Software community not only isn't going away, but is also releasing some great software.

But whether it's the recent press about Firefox or something else, this all seems like a positive development at this point. We're just glad that the possibility of finally separating our content from our style and being able to present it consistently to visitors is just over the horizon. Moving the CafeID website (http://www.cafeid.com) from tables to CSS was relatively easy. Getting it to look the same in both IE and the family of Other Browsers is still not fully accomplished. We're looking forward to that day.

After years of ignoring the Open Source community (for fear of giving them legitimacy, I suppose), Microsoft seems to have finally realized that it has competition. Apple, while providing much of the inspirational and R&D muscle in the PC industry, is safely locked away on a different hardware platform (for now) with no apparent intention of going head-to-head with MS. Only Linux has presented itself as a legitimate alternative for PC owners, and what little it lacks in usability it more than makes up in reliability, speed and security. Firefox is just another in a long line of Open Source projects getting it right, adding polish to a solid core. And in spite of its 85% market share, MS has an uphill road when it comes to making a better browser.

At the same time, it looks as if the sleeping giant may be stirring. We just hope the new browser wars don't hold back the Web for another ten years.

Trevor Bauknight is a web designer and writer with over 15 years of experience on the Internet. He specializes in the creation and maintenance of business and personal identity online and can be reached at [email protected]. Stop by http://www.cafeid.com for a free tryout of the revolutionary SiteBuildingSystem and check out our Flash-based website and IMAP e-mail hosting solutions, complete with live support.



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