Raising the Standard

15 Sep, 2004 | WebTdp

I stumbled across an interesting article over at ZDNet (hat tip: Dave Shea) about why the net community should stop harping on about web standards. As a fan of web standards, and being aware that the standards crowd is amongst the biggest and most vocal of online activist groups, I knew it was going to be messy. I'd like to think I read the article with an open mind. I'm a sucker for a good argument, as I may have mentioned before, and if you put a good point across I like to think that I'm capable of accepting defeat and changing my views (I've done it before). He does make some interesting points.

I agree, for example, that most people -- with the exception of web developers -- don't care whether a site is standards compliant. Except perhaps search engines, or people with disabilities (as shown by the recent Odeon debacle), or the people who develop browsers, and I'm not just talking about Mozilla, I'm talking about text and audio browser manufacturers, and those people who access sites via news readers or devices like PDAs and mobile phones. So, with the exception of web developers, search engines, disabled people, browser developers, and anyone who accesses sites via software other than a browser or on devices other than a computer, no one is interested in standards, they just want to be able to look at a site. You could argue that most of these people aren't interested in the standards either, but as they play a fundamental role (as in, if we all start doing our own thing, they're screwed) in allowing them to access a site, I took it as read. Anyway, my point was, he raised some things I agree with, in the main though, he's completely wrong.

The article basically says that to compete with Microsoft, you need to copy Microsoft. If the Mozilla browser (and all the others), the article states, did exactly what Internet Explorer (IE) did -- showed pages the way IE does, supported the features IE has -- it'd be taking home the bacon. The reasoning behind it being that this is exactly what Microsoft did when Netscape was in front. Now, Mr Carrol states that he was a web developer during The Browser Wars and that MS copied mimicked Netscape to catch up and then overtake them as the market leader and that by using IE as they're standard, everyone else can make the same move. Wrong, all wrong, but here's why, MS got ahead in the browser market for two reasons (although near unlimited resources, a big marketing campaign and some strong arm business tactics helped):

  1. Netscape, inexplicably, decided to take two years off and not touch their browser at the height of this period, they brought out version 4.7 and... stopped. Why? Possibly due to a lack of money, possibly the impending purchase by AOL, I don't know. The new owners proceeded to not do anything (except take Microsoft to court) until releasing version 6. It was the last mistake they made, they never recovered, all got sacked and the code given to the Mozilla foundation.

  2. Having said that, the biggest reason is simple, Microsoft included IE for free, by default, in their operating system. Windows '95 had started Microsoft's assault on the home market and it was the first to include IE as standard. And the masses were then provided with a free, automatically installed web browser, why the hell were they going to go out and download another one? It's the same now. It's no coincidence that Windows runs on 90% of the world's desktops and IE has 90-95% share (depending on who you listen to) of the browser market. No one else can compete with that until a) MS is forced to remove it from the standard install, which isn't going to happen, they built it into the OS to get around it, or b) MS are forced to have other browsers installed by default.

I was also rather dumbfounded at the suggestion that, essentially, we treat IE as the standard. This is the same IE that won't be getting updated until 2006/7 and the same IE you'll need to buy a whole new OS to get the new version of. And that's before you look at Microsoft's record for software, especially on the web. Internet Information Server (IIS) comes well behind the open-source Apache for web server popularity (even MS don't run IIS on all their servers), PHP is used by more than ASP, MySQL or Oracle are preferred to MSSQL. You could argue the reason is cost, but there are significant security concerns to using MS products. In fact, the only place they excel is on the desktop, with their OS and Office products. Then you have the fact that half of Internet Explorer's features were nicked from elsewhere (in fact they're still over a barrel about some of them). And this is the same MS that invented Jscript, a bastardised version of JavaScript, that worked on nothing else and the company that grabbed Java and tried to adapt that to it's own ends. All because they wanted people to be locked into their system. MS loves proprietary systems, it forces you back to them. Is it surprising nobody trusts them?

When IE is not included by default, and supports all the standards as it should (rather than it's take on them), then we'll put all browsers head-to-head and see who wins, I guarantee it won't have 90% market share. But that day will never come, so web standards evangelists are encouraging the deaf and dumb at MS that it is worth the effort to make IE standards compliant, they're trying to get more people away from IE using any and all methods they can because a) it will help force MS to sit up and take note, b) it means more people will run software that supports standards and c) it will open up the marketplace again.

So, in the wake of the browser wars, what happened? Well, MS defeated Netscape, their only viable competitor, with them gone, they looked about and saw they were top dog with no one to bother them and promptly pulled all development on IE. IE 6 was release in 2001 lest we forget and has next to nothing but security updates and the occasional bug fix done to it since. If nothing else Opera, Mozilla and the others will stimulate competition and force MS back to spending some money and time improving IE. Without these browsers it's a one horse race and MS has no reason to spend money on improving the software.

So come on John, get on the standards wagon, you know it makes sense. And remember folks, browse happy.

Update - Yesterday (16/09/04), there was news that another flaw had been found in IE! Come to the land of safety, get rid of IE. (This new flaw means that just visiting a web page is dangerous!)