SEMA News - June 2009

By Joe Dysart

The Gobbledygook Factor

With the Release of Internet Explorer 8, Expect Some Broken Websites

SEMA News-June 2009-Internet  

In the long term, Internet Explorer 8’s adherence to web standards is expected to help reduce web design costs.

Companies vexed by the relentless need to continually design their websites for multiple browsers have a new challenge: the 2009 release of Internet Explorer 8 (IE8). In a phrase, it is expected to wreak havoc on a select number of websites. Apparently, IE8’s coming roll-out “may cause content written for previous versions of Internet Explorer to display differently than intended,” according Nick MacKechnie, a senior technical account manager for Microsoft.

Granted, the impending disruption probably would have been even worse in the heyday of Internet Explorer (IE), when the browser was pretty much the only game in town. But even without complete market dominance, the changeover is expected to have a major impact. More than two-thirds (68%) of all PCs still used Internet Explorer as of December 2008, according to a study by market watcher Net Applications. And while rival browsers are gaining steadily, they’re still very far back in the pack. Firefox, Microsoft’s primary challenger, still has only a 21% market share, according to the Net Applications study. And the Safari browser for the Mac clocks in at just under 8%. Meanwhile, Google’s much-touted Chrome browser barely makes a blip, with just 1% of market share.

As with many upgrades instituted by Microsoft, most companies will not be able to “defend” against this latest version of IE, since the new browser will be distributed by Microsoft as an automatic update. Essentially, one day, you’ll have IE7 on your machine, and you’ll walk in to find the new IE8 interface smiling back at you the next morning—like it or not.

Ironically, the anticipated problems with IE8 are the result of a fundamental shift at Microsoft—a company decision to adhere for the first time to web-design standards set by the web design community at large rather than a stance of trying to bully designers into accepting IE as the de facto global standard.

In the long term, Microsoft’s about face is expected to reap real savings for web designers and companies. Coders will be able to spend more time designing and less time making special tweaks for IE idiosyncrasies. And more companies will be relying on standards-compliant sites that take less revenue to produce, download quicker and are better optimized for search engines.

Still, getting from here to there will be a bit painful.

“What’s going to happen is that a lot of sites coded for IE will not work in IE8,” said Jeffrey Zeldman, author of Designing With Web Standards (second edition) and a globally recognized standards guru. “Not only will layouts look wonky, but scripting will also change.”

In common parlance, that means all those request-for-quote forms used by businesses could stop working. Company forums and feedback forms may also cause some trouble. And much of the rich media that many of today’s websites rely on may simply stop working.

Adds a blunt Zeldman: “If you write IE-only scripts, your site will break.”

Companies that regularly use web-based software could also be in for added headaches. These sites could also stop working properly and could take weeks or months to fix by the service providers who decide to play catch up rather than be proactive about IE8’s roll-out.


Companies that would rather wait and see with Internet Explorer 8 can block the automatic update with a special tool designed by Microsoft.

The take-away? Unearthing how bad the carnage will be at your own company site will hinge on your webmaster’s design philosophy. Sites based primarily on web standards and only tweaked for the previous version of IE may face only extremely minor problems—if any. But sites specifically designed to work in previous versions of IE with no regard to web standards whatsoever could face major snafus. Fortunately, Microsoft does have a short-term, quick-fix solution for the afflicted.

“We have provided a meta-tag usable on a per-page or per-site level to maintain backward compatibility with Internet Explorer 7,” MacKechnie said. “Adding this tag instructs Internet Explorer 8 to render content like it did in Internet Explorer 7 without requiring any additional changes.”

Plus, companies that would rather not deal with an “automatic update” in the dead of the night to a fleet of PCs can stop that change in its tracks with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Blocker Toolkit. Once protected, all PCs with Microsoft’s blocker will remain on IE7 until IT decides the company is ready to upgrade. The best bet is to install the blocker well in advance of IE8’s release rather than after the fact. As many of us have learned the hard way, once installed, Microsoft’s automatic updates are often tough to reverse and are sometimes even irreversible.

The long-term solution to the release of IE8 will be for every company to design and maintain sites based on standards created by the globally recognized web standards body World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Zeldman said. Fortunately, W3C offers two free online tools that validate web standards compliance, one for HTML, and another for CSS—acronyms instantly recognizable to any designer.

Zeldman has also released his own Web Standards Advisor validator, which is designed to work with Dreamweaver, one of the more popular web authoring tools.

“The Web Standards Advisor is great for the designer who is climbing aboard the web standards design train,” Zeldman said. “But it’s also surprisingly useful for the advanced coder.” Zeldman said that he even found mistakes in his own website with the tool.

Additional help is also being offered by Microsoft, which has released a cornucopia of online tools created to help companies understand, adapt to and monitor IE8’s coming roll-out. Those include:

So far, Microsoft has not set an official release date for IE8. But industry watchers believe it will be sooner rather than later. The new browser has already been through a couple of beta test trials. And Microsoft also began distributing “Release Candidate 1” in late January—a signal that IE8 is nearly complete.

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan, New York.

Voice: 646/233-4089

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