– Mark E. Smith

I generally like the work of surprisingly cute and French-named American writer Paul Boutin, with whom I’ve exchanged snatchmail on rare occasion and who actually did a phoner with me once.

But even if you induce NPR hosts to pronounce your name as something other than “Bootin’,” you still need to write about Web standards with either accuracy or well-declared biases. Boutin’s article for Slate – “Are the Browser Wars Back?” – is certainly not a travesty. But it does tend to elide facts and it is written from a curious starting point – that the Web as experienced by Internet Explorer for Windows is the base and every divergence from it must be justified.

Let’s have a look!

How Mozilla’s Firefox trumps Internet Explorer

Seemingly a good start, right? Well, as we shall soon see, Firefox only begrudgingly trumps Explorer, and you the Windows user only need to consider trying it now that the straw has broken the security camel’s back.

You’ve probably been told to dump Internet Explorer for a Mozilla browser before, by the same propeller-head geek who wants you to delete Windows from your hard drive and install Linux. You’ve ignored him, and good for you.

Oh, give me a break, Paul. We tell people to dump Explorer – as I did, quite independently, only yesterday – because of its security flaws, noncompliance with standards, and outdated interface. We are not engaged in a religious war. I don’t try to convert omnivores to veganism and I don’t try to convert Windows users to Macs – let alone to Linux, which I do not run.

All that my friends and I want Windoids to do is stop using a demonstrably harmful software product – particularly since free or low-cost alternatives are available.

And I don’t know of any standardista who has spun a connection from IE’s security failures and standards noncompliance to the superiority of Linux. Are there any? Link me, please.

Microsoft wiped out Netscape in the Browser Wars of the late 1990s not only because the company’s management pushed the bounds of business ethics, but also because its engineers built a better browser. When Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale approved the Mozilla project – an open-source browser based on Netscape’s code – in 1998, it seemed like a futile act of desperation.

IE was better than Netscape. But could it be the best ever? Hardly. Time marches on; what Microsoft did to Netscape somebody else could to do Microsoft. It’s not like it could happen; it always happens. There’s always a new “best.”

Even in 1998, standards compliance was discussed as a way Mozilla could differentiate itself. Check Google Groups:

(I’m still going through all those messages, actually – they’re a curious time capsule.) CNet covered the issue, too.

That’s why [groups] recently took the unusual step of advising people to consider switching browsers… increasing your Internet Explorer security settings…. (Alas, the higher setting disables parts of Slate’s interface.)

But, as we know, Slate is noncompliant. (Less so than MSNBC, but who isn’t less noncompliant?) Why does a Web-based magazine need to use features that conflict with high security settings? Is someone unclear on the concept?

For actual Web surfing, Firefox’s interface is familiar enough to Explorer users. There’s hardly anything to say about it, which is a compliment.

IE’s interface is now the base? That’s a good one.

Question: What happens when you press Ctrl-N in Firefox? Now try it in IE. “Hardly anything to say about it”? (Later, Boutin mentions tabbed browsing. He might also have mentioned the sidebar and downloadable skins.)

Some interactive features designed exclusively for Internet Explorer won’t appear, such as the pop-up menus on Slate’s table of contents.

Further noncompliance by definition (“features designed exclusively for Internet Explorer”). Why not just use Brothercake’s menus, or something equally cross-platform?

A few sites don’t display properly, but they’re pretty rare.

I’ll need examples. Sites that “don’t display properly” are almost always noncompliant pages custom-crafted for IE’s noncompliant display, and that is what’s deemed the norm. (The actual spec is the norm. Sadly, this does involve many interpretations, but they are interpretations based on specification.) It is, however, possible to find rare standards-compliant pages that are so advanced (as through the use of CSS3) that they won’t even display in Gecko-based browsers like Firefox. Or won’t display perfectly – and that brings up another point.

Could we have some understanding here of graceful degradation, please? Your site may look and perform perfectly in a compliant browser but merely look OK and perform OK in a noncompliant one. In days of yore, Netscape 4 was the cœlecanth of a browser to whose level we designed sites to degrade gracefully; now it’s Internet Explorer.

In these sites that Firefox does not “display properly,”

  • could we fix the HTML and CSS so it would?
  • can you nonetheless read and understand all the content?
  • can you use all the site’s functions?

Listen, if they can make One True Fit work in Netscape 4, anything’s possible – if you know what you’re doing.

More common are those that stupidly turn non-Explorer browsers away by claiming they’re “unsupported.”

Indeed yes, that is a problem – solved wholesale by standards compliance.

Once you’re set up, it still takes a day or two to get used to the interface and feature differences between Explorer and Firefox,

I thought there was “hardly anything to say” about the interface.

as well as the fact that your favorite sites may look a little different.

And the fact that compliant sites will look and act better.

Paul, please try harder next time. It is difficult to shake the perception that a Windows user’s writing an article about an alternative to Microsoft Internet Explorer for a publication owned by Microsoft subtly encouraged insufficient research.

Superexclusive update!

Paul Himself™ writes:

I agree with Joe about his basic premise:

It is written from a curious starting point – that the Web as experienced by Internet Explorer for Windows is the base and every divergence from it must be justified.

Exactly, except to me that point of view isn’t “curious,” it’s the default for the majority of people who use the Net.

We’re not talking about “the majority of people.” (Really, why mix with the lower orders?) We’re talking about people who make Web sites.

The standard comes first. If the de facto alternative to the standard were better (as is the case, to use a micro-example, with embed vs. object), that’s one discussion. But it is, in fact, actively worse.

You missed the last bit there, Paul: “and every divergence from it must be justified.” In other words, if you want a better browser that supports Web standards, doesn’t hijack your computer, and actually works like an intelligent piece of software, you have to prove you need it. That’s the problem, me son.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2004.07.01 12:24. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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