+1.5 Years: Where Are We Now?

I wrote this post well ahead of the release of IE 7, and I’ve been holding back on writing a follow up until things seemed reasonably settled. A year and a half since that post, and almost a year since IE 7 hit the streets, I fear things are more settled than anyone would like.

The “worst case scenario” that I’ve described to folks in private for a long time is that IE 7 is the end of the line. The last hurrah. The final gasp of life in Trident’s creaking limbs. IE 7 could either signal the beginning of a renewed commitment to the web by Microsoft, or it could be the minimum MSFT can get away with to prevent customer mutiny. To assuage the latter scenario, I’ve directly and firmly asked every member of the IE team I’ve talked to since then to outline in public Microsoft’s commitment to new versions of IE. We need to see timelines, feature targets, and distribution plans for those releases as well. This might seem like putting the cart before the horse but I think it’s not too much to ask. In fact, it might even be the minimum the web development community should expect.

To contrast the IE commitment to a better future with Mozilla’s, it’s instructive to look at the roadmaps for each. Brendan Eich has an entire blog dedicated to communicating outward about the features that we can expect from the web as delivered by Firefox (and the platform behind it). The IE Team’s blog is eerily silent on the future of what is still the most important browser on the internet. We’re reduced to getting information from third parties and conference talks. The features planned for Firefox 3 are impressive and the work is being done in the open, meaning it’s easy to have confidence that not only will Mozilla ship what they say they will, it’ll be here when they say it will. Same goes for the excellent work the Safari team has been doing. Even Opera keeps its community on fire by shipping regular updates, showing tech previews at conferences, and blogging about the progress being made on many fronts. If the IE team is holed up working on something stonkingly good, they certainly aren’t doing themselves any favors by not telling us about it. The result of their radio silence isn’t mystery, it’s distrust. Deep, divisive, troubling distrust of the kind you can only get when folks who break up stop talking altogether. The problem is that IE still has half of my DVDs and my friends keep telling me it’s just using me. Not a great way to rebuild a relationship.

Part of the distrust springs for what wasn’t in IE 7.

We did get some good things, of course. The tireless vendor-focused work of Molly Holzschlag and other (relative) pragmatists in the standards community helped get a lot of the most egregious issues fixed. But for as important as those fixes where, they were important in a historical context. They helped enable better versions of what we started to develop with in 1998.

When I caught up with Ted Leung at OSCON this year, we had a long discussion about “RIA’s” in general, but in talking with him it became clear to me how little of what we (rich app developers) needed was delivered by IE 7. Of the 10 items on my off-the-cuff list, only gzip issues and memory allocation have been substantively addressed. And quite frankly, it was a reserved list; it only included things that might have been hard but shouldn’t require fundamental architectural changes. Progress has been made on memory leakage, but we’re still finding new leak patterns that need guarding against.

And then there are the regressions. On my list from last year was VML, and far from fixing its performance IE 7 broke critical VML functionality. Yes, yes, VML is old, bad, silly tech, but then so is the rest of what we’ve got to work with out here on the open web. Microsoft has subsequently released Silverlight which we’re using to hack around some of VML’s liabilities for limited situations, but we might as well be using Flash or Java at that point. Silverlight has nearly zero market penetration and it’s yet another “draw in a little box” solution which isn’t Open Web tech. Yawn. The IE team also removed the only WYSIWYG infrastructure that was worth a damn in their browser. The only reason web developers didn’t raise holy hell over this is probably that every other browser is worse than even the IE fallback position.

Judging IE’s progress feels like making excuses for a rotten kid with absentee parents: at some point explanations cease to matter and the behavior itself needs to be addressed. I’m not giving up on IE’s potential, but it’s harder and harder to trust that the baby steps taken with IE 7 are going to solidify into a pattern of real progress when we’ve gone a year without any real communication from Microsoft as to what’s next.

I’m pretty sure the IE team isn’t sitting still. Chris Wilson is heading up the HTML 5 working group and there’s reports of some real progress there. HTML 5 is the most important web spec under consideration anywhere so this is truly good news. But it hasn’t yet been accompanied by the kinds of communication that allow us to trust MSFT as a custodian of the web’s future.

Getting IE 7 and watching it ramp up among IE’s installed base has been good, but it’s only half the answer. The web needs to know, unequivocally, when we can expect more information about IE.Next, what OSes it will target, and what standards, improvements, and major fixes are on the roadmap even if they slip. Without that much honesty, this relationship probably won’t get off the ground again.

7 Comments

  1. Posted September 6, 2007 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    I was excited about IE7 when it came out. I had read a list of the problems fixed by the release, and this was directly from the source… one of the guys working on it.  I was encouraged that there were names associated with IE, and thought that this release would be a good step forward.

    I now believe it was less a step than simply a tease.  Things were corrected, but in the larger context (everyone’s personal IE7 bug-list, including yours), these were minor changes.  The release was long enough ago that any excitement or hope for possibility has worn off for me. 

    All excitement has now faded. I wouldn’t be surprised by a future release, with a few more small-potatos bug fixes, just to maintain a glimmer of hope for most people.  Heck, maybe we won’t even get that.  I’d love for them to prove me wrong.  Regardless, I don’t think IE will ever provide anything other than reactionary releases, furthering your point that Microsoft will only do the minimum they can get away with.

  2. Posted September 6, 2007 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Hey Alex, I was wondering about one thing you say in the post: why do you feel that WYSIWYG editing through ActiveX controls was better than contentEditable?
    By the way, I had to launch Firefox to comment here as the rich text control does not seem to be focusable on IE7/Vista. Even in Firefox, it  seems to be out of the tab order (hitting tab from the previous field doesn’t focus on it).
    Thanks!

  3. Andy
    Posted September 6, 2007 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Both webkit and gecko are embeddable and reasonably mature, can’t microsoft just put their own interface on top of one of these? Hell, even opera would be open to providing a closed solution if microsoft doesn’t want to touch open source stuff.  They did it before with earlier IE version that embedded the spyglass/NSCA code, so they have their own precedent.

    Your relationship analogy is a good one, but there’s another, perhaps stronger, relationship at play.  Microsoft’s claims of love and pride for a product they obviously don’t really care about.  Actions speak louder than words, and IE7’s release, and the lead up to it, was like a dead-beat dad who only shows up, unannounced, on your birthday.

  4. Posted September 6, 2007 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Hey Bertrand,

    I haven’t yet upgraded the editor on this page for 0.9. I’ll try to get that done today.

    As for the substantive question regarding contentEditable, it’s behavior WRT the undo stack is completely bogus. I’ve blogged about a potential solution here, but the current situation is that w/ the ActiveX control we could have atomic, undoable updates which were constrained to the editing area itself and with contentEditable today that’s just not possible. The result is that it’s not really feasible to easily add new features to WYSIWYG editing or even make it reasonably semantic without biting off the problem of implementing your own undo stack (invariably, badly).

    This situation is not tennable.

    Regards

  5. Posted September 6, 2007 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

     Bertrand:The editor is now upgraded to 0.9 and works on IE 7 (XP SP2) just fine. Let me know if you’re still having issues with it.Regards

  6. Posted September 7, 2007 at 3:07 am | Permalink

     I never was a big fan of firefox and always have been a microsoft user, but sometimes Microsoft does pisses you off! What’s with the multiple tabs carshes Microsoft?http://www.nueronic.com/internet-explorer-7-sucks/

  7. Posted September 7, 2007 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Thanks for fixing the editor (still can’t tab to it but that’s a minor inconvenience) and for the detailed answer. In my (very ancient, like 1999) experience writing a wysiwyg editor with the ActiveX, the undo stack was very much broken too, and we had many other problems with it. At the time we welcomed contentEditable gladly as it was a lot more manageable for us. But I agree that the undo stack and caret management are the really tricky parts that should be fixed.

8 Trackbacks

  1. By Ajaxian » Web Developers, Where Are We Now? on September 6, 2007 at 8:20 am

    […] Alex Russell isn’t known for holding back his opinions. He continues his tradition of calling issues to our attention in his piece on Where are we now?. […]

  2. By +1.5 Years: Where Are We Now? - Noticias externas on September 6, 2007 at 9:39 am

    […] +1.5 Years: Where Are We Now? If the IE team is holed up working on something stonkingly good, they certainly aren’t doing themselves any favors by not telling us about it. The result of their radio silence isn’t mystery, it’s distrust. Deep, divisive, troubling distrust of the kind you can only get when folks who break up stop talking altogether. The problem is that IE still has half of my DVDs and my friends keep telling me it’s just using me. Not a great way to rebuild a relationship.http://alex.dojotoolkit.org/?p=620so what is the story with IE8? why the silence? is there going to be an IE8?? are there any new videos here on c9 from IE team coming up? […]

  3. By occident.us » Blog Archive » links for 2007-09-07 on September 7, 2007 at 12:28 am

    […] Continuing Intermittent Incoherency » +1.5 Years: Where Are We Now? Wise words from Alex Russell on the specter that haunts my nightmares. (tags: ie7 ajax ria microsoft) […]

  4. By artikboy.com ⁄ Blog on September 8, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    […] I came across with this post over at Ajaxian while browsing through my RSS common feeds. It’s a sort of review done on a text posted by Alex Russel over 1.5 years, mentioning several aspects on the conduct of browser developer teams, specially on the IE team responsible for the 7th version of the one that is probably the most famous browser worldwide. […]

  5. […] Thanks to the Ajaxian’s for linking my last post on the topic of what we need from IE. As I’ve been responding to the comments, it occured to me that it’s not quite fair to poke IE in the eye when there are issues (like WYSIWYG) where we need the help of all the browser vendors to get something useful done. That in mind, here’s my generic Browser.Next list of 10 issues that would give Ajax libraries a break and let app authors worry less. […]

  6. […] When it became clear that IE 7 was going to be tied to WGA in an early beta, it left a lot of angry developers scratching their heads. Perhaps smart moves like this are enough to counter the lack of public communication about the future of IE and the stunning paucity of debugging tools for Redmond’s browser (among other things), but anything that cycles IE 6 out of circulation faster is good for the web. Kudos to the IE team for doing the right thing by their users. […]

  7. […] Closed-platform vendors have always been selling that advantage, in part because it may be their only sustainable advantage over mass ubiquity and real competition. What advocates of the “go slow” position rightly are pointing out is that when faced with what to do next, the pace of change suggests that the deployed browser population is set in stone. It has always looked this way, though. From the days when Netscape 3.2 kept us from using DHTML in any real form to the years when NN4 just couldn’t die fast enough all the way through the new deadpool taking bets around the demise of IE 6, progress on the web has always been gated by deployed systems. Yet somehow we’ve got most of HTML 4, CSS 2, and ES3 in a semi-portable form. Clearly the web is robust enough to handle moderate doses of divergent implementations. Progress neither asks for permission nor arrives with a press release. It’s made one browser upgrade or replacement at a time. […]

  8. […] A lot of hyperbole gets thrown around about how painful IE 6 and 7 make the world of JS development, and so I thought I’d do a bit of cataloging to help those using Dojo understand why it’s built the way it is and indeed, why all JS widget libraries suffer similar design warts. I know the good folks up in Redmond are working hard at delivering something better, but the fact of the matter remains that until they outline when we’re going to get it (and the version after) and how it’s going to be distributed, IE 8 only serves to make the current situation look as shabby as it really is. Here are but 5 examples of how IE makes your toolkit of choice less elegant than it probably should be. […]