Ditch this doctype talk until IE6 is dead

Once upon a time, about 6 years ago, the internet had just started to recover from an almightly hangover called the dot com boom. There were only two major browsers out and about at the time, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) and Netscape Navigator (RIP) (I won’t talk about Opera and Safari at this point as their market share is, and always has been, minimal). There were a number of people out on the internet who, with the W3C, were evangelising web standards, but they had a problem: browser support.

For those who don’t know, IE6 is not standards compliant. Run IE6 through the Acid 2 test and watch it fail miserably. It had problems, lots of problems, fast-forward to modern times and you’ll see that the accepted way to get around IE6’s failings is to write a separate stylesheet for it!

Web standards gurus finally started having their way when Mozilla’s firefox browser appeared. Firefox raised the bar in terms of standards compliance, allowing web developers to use the full power of CSS to create some amazing techniques (look at Silverback for brilliant use of % widths and transparency to make a parallax effect). Microsoft however, left IE to stagnate in its non-standards compliance for 5 years until the summer of 2006 when IE7 finally saw the light of day.

There were many people talking of “breaking the internet” by making IE7 standards-compliant from he outset. This was because when IE6 was released, only 1 of the top 200 internet sites were running in a standards-compliant mode. By the time IE7 came out that number was up to >50% of the top 200 sites. The so-called “quirks” mode of IE6 allowed for some very non-compliant code to render perfectly well; run the same code in firefox and everything changed, with some sites looking an absolute mess. IE7 was meant to be a wake-up call to all lazy web developers who wrote bad code, but businesses didn’t change. IE6 had been around for so long, many, many businesses don’t install IE7 as standard because their intranet will break (AKA not look right) and the cost of changing it would be too high. Despite numerous calls to let IE6 die, Microsoft continues to ship Windows XP with IE6 installed. With lagging sales of Vista, MS has an uphill struggle to gain back fans from the web standards community.

Fast-forward to 2008 and for web standards afficionados, browser support isn’t a problem. Safari and Opera now support most of the CSS3 selector set and Firefox 3 is just around the corner. The real problem for web designers is still IE6, which maintains a 39% share of the browser market (Firefox 2 and IE7 both near 23%, the rest insignificant). Until IE6 dies, web designers will have to invest significant amounts of time making their designs work with IE6.

Microsoft think they have the answer, in the form of IE8, a browser that shall succeed where IE7 failed. IE8 came onto everyone’s radar with a bang when Dean Hachamovitch, IE’s general manager, announced that IE8 passes the Acid2 test. “Huzzah”, shouted most, “What about my website!” cried the rest. MS soon answered that with their announcement that by default, IE8 would render like IE7, a method developed hand-in-hand with WaSP members.. The backlash came quickly, but not fiercely. With an issue of A List Apart dedicated to the subject people were quickly suggesting ways around it to force the IE8 rendering mode, none of which will be implemented (except maybe the forced standards mode for the public beta).

So, here’s my two pence on the issue: with this default doctype in place, IE6 will not die. IE8’s take-up will be the same as IE7, effectively replacing the browser. MS has tried to kill the browser by forcing it through windows update (though they provided a tool to block it), though most businesses resisted. IE6 will only die out when MS releases its next operating system and businesses finally upgrade. There is currently no need to upgrade as business computers (on their 3 year cycle) can’t cope with Vista’s system requirements and their tech support teams are blocking IE7 as it won’t work correctly with all the sites people use in their day-to-day routines.

So, whilst I do care about IE8, lets not argue about default rendering mode, lets campaign to make IE8’s standards mode the best that it can be, with as many ground-breaking features as possible (maybe some CSS3 even), so that businesses want to upgrade.

Steve

Currently listening to: whatever’s on my shuffle
Currently reading: Web standards creativity – brilliant book for advanced CSS techniques and inspiration
Currently watching: Jurassic park!
Currently eating: take-out
Time when running a half-marathon: 2 hours 11 minutes (not bad for a first go)

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Steve Workman

Steve Workman is the UI Tech Lead for yell.com at hibu. He is also an organiser for London Web Standards is an occasional public speaker, talking about web performance and web standards

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