When good browsers go bad -- and they all do

Better browsers. Better standards. Better tools. So why are Web pages still breaking?

"Microsoft deliberately ignored the standard," says freelance Web developer and author Peter-Paul Koch, who is known for his publication of browser compatibility tables at Quirksmode.org. "They said, 'OK, we have the standard, but we are not going to implement it,'" and now that same event-handling module is moving into IE8. In response, Microsoft's Wilson says, "Event handling is something we still intend to bring into compliance with the DOM standard. However, we simply couldn't get it into IE8." And he notes that there are "well-known work-arounds" that developers can use.

Fortunately, the event-handling issue doesn't come up often, says Koch. He says he's glad to see Microsoft making progress with IE8's support for CSS 2.1, and he thinks it is unreasonable to expect Microsoft to fix everything overnight.

Even so, some observers believe that Microsoft is a few steps behind competing browsers, such as Firefox, Opera and Safari. The makers of those browsers are already implementing some of the more mature modules in the emerging specifications -- including the Canvas video element in HTML 5 and Scalable Vector Graphics. Some competing browser vendors "are already implementing CSS 3 because some modules are in the candidate recommendation phase," says W3C's Le Hegaret.

Field of challengers

The four biggest competitors to IE -- Firefox, Safari, Opera and Chrome -- have their share of problems as well, but they pale in comparison to the problems surrounding IE -- particularly earlier versions such as IE6. "There are slight differences between Firefox and Safari and Chrome but they are very minor," says Koch.

But there are problems. Firefox is the No. 2 browser on the market, with a share of about 20 percent. While Firefox follows standards, it is not perfect. For example, Web sites may write to Firefox-specific properties, such as the Gecko DOM Range.comparePoint method and other similar events, says Bruce Lawson, Web evangelist at Opera.

In fact, differences in how standards have been interpreted and bugs in the implementation have created issues for Opera, he says. Lawson calls those problems "Mozilla-isms."

Opera had to resort to adding JavaScript-based hacks to work around the compatibility layer that some Web sites had created for Firefox, says Lawson. For example, Opera changed how it handled the Date.getYear() method so that it returned a full year when the year was > 1999 or Page Break

It did this for cross-browser compatibility, "despite breaking the JavaScript spec," Lawson explained. Opera changed it, breaking the spec in version 9.5, because, Lawson says, "Mozilla and Apple got it wrong and it was breaking many pages -- mostly airline calendar widgets.

"In some cases, we supported the IE technology that the compatibility [layer] worked around but didn't support the Mozilla properties, so we had to force the site to give us the original IE code for that functionality. This is clearly not the best way to develop cross-browser Web sites."

No browser today is 100 percent standards-compliant, says Meyer. "I don't think they ever can be. But they're certainly much, much closer than they used to be."

Tooling up for standards

Offering developers good tools that produce clean, standards-compliant code is critical to having an interoperable, standards-compliant Web. "Tools like Dreamweaver have made tremendous strides forward in standards support," says Derek Featherstone, group lead for the Web Standards Project. This advocacy group is best known for the Acid3 Browser Test, which checks browsers for standards compliance.

Meyers agrees that the improvement has been dramatic. "You really have to work to make them not produce standards-oriented markup and CSS now," he says.

But Web authoring tools are just one piece of the puzzle. Other sources of Web output -- such as Microsoft Word, with its ability to save a document as a Web page, and the default page templates used by many content management systems -- aren't always up to snuff.

"You have many automated tools -- wikis, content management systems -- that produce millions of pages every day. We need to make sure all of those tools provide valid markup," says Le Hegaret. While some tools do a good job -- and some even link to the W3C's HTML validator -- overall "we still have less support in authoring tools than we'd like," he says.

Educating the masses

You can have complete, unambiguous standards in place, fully compliant browsers and state-of-the-art authoring tools that generate compliant code, but nothing will change until Web site developers change their behavior. "There are lots of people who just slap code together until it works," says Meyer. But how do you get the world's Web developers -- and the more than 20 billion Web pages they've created -- up to speed?

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Robert L. Mitchell

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