Microsoft’s Web Standards Motivations

Though there is still a long road to travel before we get adequate support for web standards in Internet Explorer, Microsoft has started down that road again with the upcoming release of Internet Explorer 7. As a result, organizations like the Web Standards Project (WaSP) have shifted gears from their traditional role of lobbying against Microsft and have begun working with Microsoft on this effort. Developers are, understandably, suspicious.

In a recent interview, WaSP Group Lead Molly Holzschlag defended the developers in the trenches at Microsoft, fighting the hard fight to produce a standards-compliant browser in the face of the business realities at Microsoft:

Hate Microsoft if you want, but please don’t ever think that the developers themselves are anything but our colleagues fighting the hardest fight of all.

This interview garnered a stream of comments, some expressing concern that WaSP is taking a soft approach to Microsoft these days, others questionning just how committed to standards Microsoft really is.

On his blog, Chris Wilson (Group Program Manager of the Internet Explorer Platform team) expressed the frustration he feels when he reads these sorts of accusations. Aside from venting, however, Wilson took the time to explain just how important it is for there to be a business case for standards compliance in browsers:

Business reasons stand the test of time. Pure altruistic “ethical” reasons are hard to defend to shareholders. I personally believe there is a business case for implementing standards, and I consider it my job, among other things, to make that case internally.

I must say, it is gratifying to hear that–at least for the time being–Microsoft has managed to reconcile the need for standards support with the company’s bottom line. Still, it would be nice to hear just what that business case is, because as a web developer I’d like the opportunity to help support it. I’d hate to see Microsoft put Internet Explorer on the back burner again just because, for example, developers didn’t buy into the standards push as predicted.

For now, however, it seems that Wilson and other proponents of web standards within Microsoft have a strong voice in the direction of Internet Explorer, and like us developers, many of them consider this Internet Explorer’s last chance. Unlike the rest of us, however, Wilson is staking his career on that chance:

Yes, I have the power to enact change. Yes, I will continue to improve standards support and compliance in IE, and make the web better. That’s my job, my charter, my vision, and my passion. The day it isn’t, I’ll quit. The day the development of the standards-based platform in IE goes on a back burner again, I’ll quit. My management up to and including Bill Gates has said we are back in the saddle with IE, so I have a job to get back to.

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  • jakolito

    I dont quite understand why they dont see the business case in web standards. First of all, some countries require websites to be accessible. And in order to create accessible websites one need to use standards. In the UK alone much of the internet population are elderly.

  • mx2k

    shareholders come from a broad range of backgrounds, its hard to make a business case to people who only care about the bottom line and maximizing their pocket size rather than the greater good.

  • Ghandi

    Something that may be worth noting for the shareholders is that I have read, and personally practice, a routine that I develop for Firefox first, Opera second, and then I fix everything in Internet Explorer.

    That is something.

    Just real quick like, why is it so necessary for Microsoft to have Internet Explorer?

    What business would they possibly lose if they did not have Internet Explorer?

  • http://ian.sundermedia.com TheLunchBox

    I work for a MS Certified Partner and work with Microsoft Developers on a daily basis. I can say that everybody I’ve dealt with is just like Chris Wilson. They’re actively working to change things for the better.

    It’s easy for developers to see the advantage of standards, but it’s much harder to convince non-developers or people who have only marginal experience with the web. It’s very hard to convince people to change, when they don’t think anything is broken. Most of the benefits of standards compliance don’t have a direct monetary return, so as far as most business owners/shareholders are concerned it’s a waste of time.

  • http://www.assemblysys.com mniessen

    It’s easy for developers to see the advantage of standards…

    I think it’s easy for *some* developers, but it seems that most of them still don’t care about web standards, use tables for positionning, etc… When the only sites you visit are Sitepoint, A List Apart and others dedicated to advance web design/development, it might not seem that obvious, but if you surf the “mainstream” websites (those visited by 99% of the internet users…), there are loads of tables and atrocities to witness…

  • http://www.realityedge.com.au mrsmiley

    I’ve never understood why some developers consider using tables to be non-standard. They are part of the HTML standard, doesn’t that therefore make them just one of many options that are valid to use?

  • http://www.sitepoint.com/ Kevin Yank

    mrsmiley,

    Tables themselves are not non-standard, you are correct; but using them for layout purposes is. Quoting from the HTML 4.01 standard:

    Tables should not be used purely as a means to layout document content as this may present problems when rendering to non-visual media. Additionally, when used with graphics, these tables may force users to scroll horizontally to view a table designed on a system with a larger display. To minimize these problems, authors should use style sheets to control layout rather than tables.

  • Stevie D

    I’ve never understood why some developers consider using tables to be non-standard. They are part of the HTML standard, doesn’t that therefore make them just one of many options that are valid to use?

    Using [font size=5 color=blue][b] is as technically valid as [h1], but one is a way of making text big, bold and blue and the other is a way of making text into a heading.

    Defining [p class=indent] and using [blockquote] are both technically valid, but they have different semantic meanings.

    The same is true of tables and divs. If you have tabular information, write a table. If you a document divided into sections (or divisions) – such as header, menu, content and footer – mark them as divs.

  • http://ian.sundermedia.com TheLunchBox

    When the only sites you visit are Sitepoint, A List Apart and others dedicated to advance web design/development, it might not seem that obvious, but if you surf the “mainstream” websites (those visited by 99% of the internet users…), there are loads of tables and atrocities to witness…

    That’s essentially what I was saying. The line after the one you quoted was stating that it’s often difficult to convince non-developers and in most cases it’s not the developers who make the decision when it’s time for a redesign.

    I’ve actually been posting in my own blog about the slow adoption of standards and some points you can make to non-developers to help move things forward.

  • http://www.calcResult.co.uk omnicity

    To get back to the original question; I am finding it very hard to think of business reasons that MS should improve IE.
    Business could probably be defined as two things: Finance and Reputation.

    MS don’t make any money out of IE, so it doesn’t affect the bottom line how many people use IE, nor does it affect the competition – Safari and Mozilla are both free.

    Reputation: As long as MS sells other products that will only reliably work with IE, and as long as developers prefer nasty hacks to published standards (rounded corners, drop shadows etc) then IE’s reputation is not going to drop that much further than it already has.

    Legally, I don’t see an issue: it is the web-site that must be accessible, not the browser rendering, so that argument doesn’t wash either.

    Can someone prove me wrong, please? There has to be a good reason why MS should improve IE

  • http://www.experioronline.com Jenny McDermott

    There are several very compelling business reasons for companies to embrace Web standards.

    Firefox is becoming popular in part because IE is so insecure. I’ve even seen articles in business magazines recommending corporate types switch to FF to avoid viruses and other nasty things.

    There are some 49 million Americans, as of the 2000 census, who have a disability of some type. Not all of them will be capable of or want to use the Web, but those that do have money that’s as green as anybody else’s. Making a Web site accessible could gain a company new prospects.

    There are brownie points to be earned by having an accessible Web site, just as there are in any “socially responsible business” initiative.

    Coding standards-based markup doesn’t prevent IE from rendering nicely, nor does it preclude moderate amounts of eye candy. All you need to have a universally usable/accessible/credible site design is standards-compliant html templates and 2 stylesheets, one for IE, one for everything else.

    Writing clean code enhances the likelihood that your pages will acheive good rankings in search engines.

    C’mon, everybody, let’s go educate the Corporate Suits on this.