Web Standards in the Next Generation

With the news this week that Microsoft have a build of Internet Explorer that can pass Acid2, I wonder if I will be forced to eat my words when I suggested recently that Internet Explorer may be falling further behind with web standards, not closing the gap.

Well, we have an interesting opportunity to measure an aspect of that gap. A quick glance at Bugzilla shows that Gecko was able to generate a correct screenshot by 2006-04-17. Internet Explorer claimed correct rendering on 2007-12-12. The gap is 604 days for Gecko, but obviously, greater for other browsers who have been compliant for much longer.

If Internet Explorer 8 progresses anything like Gecko, there will be a large number of bugs still to fix. If Internet Explorer 8 progresses anything like Internet Explorer historically progresses, most of those bugs won't get fixed. In other words, I'll believe it when I see it. That might not be for 20 months and might not be available on Windows XP. In fact, if the same post on the IE blog they are keen to excuse themselves from commitment to specific web standards, offering only a general tone in favour of them but excusing themselves with respect to backward compatibility. Taken as a preamble to a compliant-looking Acid2 rendering, I take this to mean, "we may not deliver this in IE8". I think everyone hopes they will, but by comparison, some of the Acid2 patches could have been in Firefox 2 but weren't because Firefox 2 was built with a frozen earlier build of Gecko.

Meanwhile, Firefox 3 is drawing closer. My impression is that the gap between 2 and 3 is not huge, which (hear me out!) is because Firefox 2 was excellent and Firefox 3 struggles to improve upon it. The difference for users is relatively minor. Although the new approach to bookmarking is hugely refreshing I think many users, including my parents, just won't get it.

The difference for developers is significantly less marked - the difference between having functional support for a technology that isn't portable to IE and having good support for a technology that isn't portable to IE is not something that will revolutionise the web. In fact, looking at the Firefox 3 for Developers page, the changes are disappointing and even worrying. In some ways it's a return to the browser wars of the late 1990s when competition between browser vendors' extensions demolished the concept of web standards.

  • Support for aspects of HTML5 - there isn't even a first working draft of HTML5. Although it was the WHATWG spec before, complying with a specification this early will mean that the implementation may not conform to the final specification, by which time, developers will be relying on the non-standard behaviour.
  • APNG - APNG is a Mozilla-sponsored bastardisation of PNG to add animation. It doesn't subscribe to the contract of PNG (which expressly forbids animation) and it isn't negotiable properly because it hijacks PNG's MIME type, extension and magic. This spells very bad news for the PNG format. In future it will be impossible to tell if a PNG is animated or not, and of course all legacy software will believe not. Despite the best efforts of a number of people, myself included, but most particularly Glenn Randers-Pehrson, Mozilla refused to adopt amendments which would resolve the conflicting standards and the PNG group failed to ratify APNG as an official extension. Although APNG was an ad-hoc solution to offer animated UI elements in Mozilla, it is being released and promoted as the new web standard for animation and MNG support, although a superior and established format, has been canned.
  • Microformats - Firefox 3 builds-in support for Microformats, which could just as easily be a standalone Javascript library. There's no reason why this should be built-in, except to create a de-facto standard in an API which Mozilla controls. Moreover it promotes microformats as a de-facto standard, which I'm not comfortable with, because I think Microformats are an ugly hack in lieu of a proper solution.


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