In defense of version targeting

We knew when we published this issue of A List Apart that it would light a match to the gaseous underbelly of standards-based web design, but we thought more than a handful of readers would respect the parties involved enough to consider the proposal on its merits. Alas, the ingrained dislike of Microsoft is too strong, and the desire to see every site built with web standards is too ardently felt, for the proposal to get a fair viewing.

The always dapper Mr Jeremy Keith provides a pleasantly thoughtful exception to the massive glowering.

Jeremy sees that version targeting offers a solution to the problem of keeping Microsoft’s Internet Explorer on the web standards track, but he quarrels with an implementation detail: namely, that if you omit the meta element that instructs IE to behave as a particular version—in other words, if you opt out—the browser defaults to IE7’s rendering.

Jeremy thinks, if you opt out by omitting the meta element, the browser should default to the latest version’s rendering, be that version IE8, IE10, or IE412.

I respect Jeremy—all the more so after reading his reasoned response to a bombshell proposal—but disagree with his reasoning on this point.

In his post, Jeremy provides the following example to prove that the “IE7 rendering=default” decision is broken:

Let’s say you’re building a website right now that uses a CSS feature such as generated content. Any browsers that currently support generated content will correctly parse your CSS declarations. Future browsers that will support generated content should also parse those CSS declarations. This expected behaviour will not occur in Internet Explorer. IE8 will include support for generated content. But unless you explicitly declare that you want IE8 to behave as IE8, it will behave as IE7.

It sounds reasonable, but it’s an unlikely scenario, and the exact opposite of what will happen over and over again out there in the real world of web development, which, for too many, is a fallen world.

Jeremy, since you are among the tiny minority of enlightened web developers who know what generated content is, and who care that IE8 will support it (and since you read ALA), you will know to include a meta element that instructs IE8 to act like IE8—or you will use “edge” to instruct IE14 to act like IE14. Easy-peasy. No hardship for you.

By contrast, the many developers who don’t understand or care about web standards, and who only test their CSS and scripts in the latest version of IE, won’t opt in, so their stuff will render in IE8 the same way it rendered in IE7.

That sounds bad, but it’s actually good, because it means that their “IE7-tested” sites won’t “break” in IE8. Therefore their clients won’t scream. Therefore Microsoft won’t be inundated with complaints which, in the hands of the wrong director of marketing, could lead to the firing of standards-oriented browser engineers on the IE team. The wholesale firing of standards-oriented developers would jerk IE off the web standards path just when it has achieved sure footing. And if IE were to abandon standards, accessible, standards-compliant design would no longer have a chance. Standards only work when all browsers support them. That IE has the largest market share simply heightens the stakes.

When I look at the scenarios of who is likely to do what where web standards and version targeting are concerned, the IE7 default for those who don’t opt in appears to be the correct design decision. Of couse I’m more than willing to be proved wrong.

Regardless, the discussion raised by Mr Keith is exactly the kind of discussion our community should be having.

Unfortunately, the conversation we’re mostly having so far is neither thoughtful nor helpful. But perhaps when the shock dies down, a few more people will consider the merits of version targeting.

To help them do so, let me break it down the way I did for myself:

  • With version targeting, IE stays on the path of web standards.
  • Without it, ineptly made websites “break,” putting IE’s standards compliance at risk.
  • If IE were to stop supporting standards, standards would stop working.

I’d love to live in a world where the vast majority of websites were compliant and accessible. But that’s not the real world. At least, not today.

Today too many sites aren’t semantic, don’t validate, and aren’t designed to specs of the W3C. Idealists think we can change this by “forcing” ignorant developers to get wisdom about web standards. Idealists hope, if sites suddenly display poorly in IE, the developers will want to know why, and will embark on a magical journey of web standards learning.

You feel that way because you are special.

You care about semantics and accessibility because it’s right.

That’s how we’re going to get more converts. By persuading more people that it’s right.

We won’t get converts by breaking sites and ridiculing their creators for not knowing as much as we do.

I commend Aaron Gustafson for his courage and intelligence and thank him and his small band of colleagues, and the engineers they worked with at Microsoft, for offering a way forward that keeps web standards front and center in all future versions of IE.


Discussion is now closed, but you can enjoy the 235 responses that came in before we shut the iron door.

[tags]microsoft, IE, versiontargeting, alistapart, ALA[/tags]

Re: CSS Unworking Group

Dear Andy:

I’m glad you’re expressing your concerns so forcefully; the web standards movement is painfully in need of leaders.

But like others I don’t see a connection between Opera’s lawsuit and your call for the disbanding of the CSS working group.

Apple and Microsoft and Netscape and Sun and Opera have been suing each other since the W3C started. What lawyers do has never stopped developers from Apple and Microsoft and Netscape and Sun and Opera from working together to craft W3C and ECMA specs.

And even if this time is different—even if, just this once, the existence of a lawsuit will stop a working group from working—I’m not sure it’s practical or advisable to cut browser makers out of the equation. For one thing, have you seen what the W3C comes up with when browser developers aren’t involved?

I can’t comment on the merits of Opera’s legal action because it is a legal action and I’m not a lawyer, let alone a lawyer versed in European antitrust law.

Based on past history, I don’t think the lawsuit will prevent the members of the CSS working group from doing their jobs. If it does, then the title of your post will be borne out, and Bert Bos, as group leader, will take action.

The web standards movement needs leaders who are passionate, but their leadership must also make sense. Proposing change when the change makes sense is good. Proposing change because you are disappointed and frustrated isn’t good enough. Anger can be brilliantly motivating; but anger is not a strategy.

[tags]webstandards, css, working group, opera, microsoft, antitrust, lawsuit, browsers[/tags]

The Joy of Technology

Good morning. Twitter, Facebook, iLike, and Word have imploded. After going offline for improvements, Twitter shows my previous custom background instead of my current choice. Random user preference rollbacks aside, at least Twitter still works. In fact it seems peppier.

Meantime, iLike in Facebook no longer shows live playlists now that iLike has officially made it possible to merge the two accounts. Playlists worked in Facebook before the announcement. (Before, iLike’s FAQ said it was impossible to merge the two accounts; but it was possible and worked well. Then iLike announced that you could at last merge the two accounts, and a nervous engineer apparently changed a setting, breaking the linkage.)

Not to be outdone by upstart web apps, Microsoft Word quits when I edit a document, and none of the standard fixes help. Word has not been updated for the Macintosh for years, of course, and it runs in emulation on Intel Macs, but I am used to that. Updating the Normal template was the last thing I did before Word started eating its own head.

Mmm, that’s good coffee.

It goes without saying that I’m editing documents of some importance.

If I open the documents in Pages, Pages posts a “Can’t find spell checker” error box. When I close the error box, Pages posts it again. When I close it again, Pages opens it again. This loop continues beyond Armageddon.

If I edit the documents in TextEdit, I can’t format them correctly, and Word’s non-standard hyperlink formatting turns nightmarish.

Third sip of coffee. Just another day at the office.

[tags]twitter, facebook, ilike, ilike.com, webapps, socialsoftware, word, microsoftword, microsoftoffice[/tags]

The King of Web Standards

In BusinessWeek, senior writer for Innovation & Design Jessie Scanlon has just published “Jeffrey Zeldman: King of Web Standards.” By any standards (heh heh), it is an accurate and well researched article. By the standards of technology journalism, it is exceptional. It might even help designers who aren’t named Jeffrey Zeldman as they struggle to explain the benefits of web standards to their bosses or clients. At the least, its publication in Business Week will command some business people’s attention, and perhaps their respect.

Avoiding the twin dangers of oversimplification that misleads, and pedantry that bores or confuses, Scanlon informs business readers about the markup and code that underlies websites; what went wrong with it in the early days of the web; and how web standards help ensure “that a Web site can be used by someone using any browser and any Web-enabled device.”

Scanlon communicates this information quickly, so as not to waste a business reader’s time, and clearly, without talking down to the reader. This makes her article, not merely a dandy clipping for my scrapbook, but a useful tool of web standards evangelism.

Contributing to the article with their comments are Jeff Veen, manager of user experience for Google’s web applications and former director of Hotwired.com; NYTimes.com design director, subtraction.com author, and grid-meister Khoi Vinh; and Dan Cederholm, founder of SimpleBits and author of Bulletproof Web Design. Dave Shea’s CSS Zen Garden features prominently as well, and rightfully so.

A right sexy slide show accompanies the article.

And lest a BusinessWeek article lull us into complacency, let us here note that the top 20 blogs as measured by Technorati.com fail validation—including one blog Happy Cog designed. (It was valid when we handed it off to the client.)

[tags]design, webdesign, standards, webstandards, webstandardsproject, WaSP, zeldman, jeffreyzeldman, veen, jeffveen, simplebits, dancederholm, bulletproof, khoivinh, subtraction, wired, hotwired, nytimes, happycog, zengarden, css, csszengarden[/tags]

What Apple copied from Microsoft

hCard couldn’t do it. Basecamp couldn’t do it. Web apps from Google and Yahoo that integrate seamlessly with Apple’s iCal, Address Book, and Mail couldn’t do it. My iPhone has done it.

My iPhone has made me stop using calendar, contact, and e-mail applications I’ve used day and night for over a decade, and switch to the free—and in some ways less capable—applications that come bundled with Macintosh OS X.

Changing years of work habits is not easy. Migrating data, in some cases by hand, takes time I don’t have to spare. Yet I’m making these changes of my own will, and happily.

In short, Apple has finally copied something from Microsoft. Or, if you prefer, Apple has learned the marketing psychology lesson that Microsoft got first. For many consumers, convenience is of greater value than choice. A platform built of parts that work together seamlessly beats a self-curated collection of apps that don’t.

That syncing feeling

Microsoft knows this, Adobe knows it, and Apple had learned it by the time they launched the iTunes/iPod cartel. The iPhone creates a similar value proposition for OS X’s bundled communication, contact, and calendar apps.

Maybe all Windows users won’t switch to Macs, but many Mac users will dump Entourage, Eudora, and the like once they sync an iPhone to their computers. What “free” wasn’t enough to achieve, “seamless” just might be. If I can change work habits, anyone can.

Victory is suite

As part of a sexy, seamless software/hardware package, Apple Mail triumphs over more sophisticated e-mail applications for much the same reason Word beat WordPerfect and Adobe Illustrator trumped Macromedia Freehand. (True: Adobe bought Macromedia and chose to discontinue Freehand. But they’re burying Freehand due to lack of resources, not because they fear it.) Word is part of the must-have suite for business professionals, and Illustrator is part of the must-have suite for creative and visual professionals, and you can’t beat the suite. That is what Apple has learned.

What no one can teach Apple is how to make user experience beautifully intuitive and elegant, lending a spirit of fun to even the most mundane task, such as getting contact phone numbers into a phone. With Address Book and an iPhone, it’s not only automatic, it’s a near-physical pleasure.

Nobody does user experience as well as Apple, and nobody but Apple in the consumer market combines beautiful software with drool-inducing hardware. Except during the cloning years, when Apple lay in the abyss, Apple has always combined hardware and software. It killed them during the 1990s OS wars, but it worked like nobody’s business for the iPod and a similar synergy is driving the iPhone.

That I could be persuaded to spend money on an iPhone is unremarkable. After all, the phone shows websites and I’m a web designer; it’s tax-deductible research. What is remarkable to anyone who knows me is that I’m willing to abandon long-used tools and shortcuts to capture these new synergies. This suggests a longer and deeper market for the iPhone than just the gadget-obsessed and early adopters with sufficient disposable income. It’s even possible that, with continued use, the beauty and utility of the iPhone will help sell Macintosh computers to PC users.

It helps that the interface is beautiful as well as intuitive, and that many of the alternatives are neither.

An interface only a mother could love

Discontinued Eudora, the program I’ve abandoned in favor of Mail, is the crone of e-mail, with an interface only a mother could love. Now Up-To-Date and Contact are overly complicated, underly beautiful, and have long showed their age. None of these programs closely follows Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines (HIG). Never mind that the Aqua HIG is incoherent, that many of Apple’s own programs violate or ignore it, and that it neglects to offer modern UI designs and controls, prompting independent developers to create a new set of Human Interface Guidelines to supplement Apple’s. The point is, even in the Classic OS days of mandatory HIG compliance, the three programs I’ve mentioned did not work as Macintosh programs were supposed to. They were cross-platform and proud of it, and a Mac user had to meet them halfway. Nevertheless, they did things other programs couldn’t do, and I used them for that reason.

I continued to use them as time and change and market share conspired against them. I worked like a farmer who refuses to accept that his field has gone fallow.

When Basecamp sent work schedules to my iCal, I manually copied the dates into Now Up-To-Date. When my own web pages spat out standard contact information via hCard, I siphoned the data into Address Book, and then manually copied it into Now Contact, line by line. (Since the fields between programs didn’t match, I could not automate the process via scripting. Now Software made a free mini-application that used to port data between Now Contact and Address Book, but it never worked all that well, and it stopped working altogether in Tiger.)

Computers are supposed to make our lives easier, but everyone knows they do the opposite, and I was so deep into my rut I thought of it as a groove.

The incredible lightness of e-mailing

Change begets change. For years, in Eudora, I kept every e-mail message I received. I kept them all in tidy, named folders and wrote filter rules to automatically sort messages as they were received. Every client, every employee, every friend, every project had its own folder and its own set of filters. I spent at least an hour a day simply managing my e-mail, which is different from reading or responding to it. When the number of open folders became overwhelming, I dragged messages into a new folder called “urgent” or “deal with this” (and then failed to deal with them).

And now? So far, in Mail, I’m answering messages as they come in, and deleting all but the most salient. A client letter outlining technical requirements, I’ll keep. A bunch of messages asking whether we should meet at 9:00 or 10:00, I delete. I feel ten pounds lighter already. I’d like to thank God and the Academy.

[tags]Apple, Address Book, iCal, iPhone, Mail.app, design, interface design, UI design, software design, uidesign, Adobe, Microsoft, integration, suites, hardware[/tags]