Standards Compliant IE8 + IE7 Compatibility Mode: Blessing or Curse?

Microsoft is heralding IE8 as the first standards compliant browser. But Internet Explorer 8 has to live in a world that isn’t fully web standards compliant, partly because of IE’s own non-compliant and “unique feature” past sins. Implementation of web coding standards seem about as precise as many network protocols; the details, like the devil (as they say), are in the details of vendors’ implementations. That’s why compatibility between vendors with new protocols can take months or years to shake out. Web developers have had to deal with various interpretations of web standards, unique browser features and idiosyncrasies of all web browsers and new upgrades, by programming for those conditions in their display logic.

If you’ve ever developed a web site, web application or web-based product, you know there’s unique code that’s conditional upon which browser is requesting the page; IE, Firefox, Opera, Chrome and others. It’s always a pain when a new release of a browser comes out because it automatically means you’ve got to test and change your web code to deal with changes in the new browser version. This unplanned change is essentially forced upon you so users of the new software can use your software.

End users either wait to upgrade until web software has caught up to the new version, or just deal with web incompatibilities when the occur. Often end users deal with it by using multiple browsers, giving them a back up option should their primary browser not work. IE8 users now have the additional “option” (or task) of A-B’ing web pages to determine if incompatible IE8 web pages render better in IE7 compatibility mode. I’m sure Microsoft added this feature to ease transition to IE8 where IE8 breaks backwards compatibility with IE7. If it works out well, we may see this compatibility mode feature in future browser versions.

But isn’t this whole process a little bit crazy? Especially as we move into the era of online cloud services and applications, and web browsers are end user’s access to applications, tools and information needed to perform their jobs? We can’t keep tearing up the onramp to the Internet, our web browser, by essentially creating new software that is incompatible with the web every time our browser is upgraded.

Take my own IE 8 experience for example. My first reaction to running IE8 was, oh great, IE no longer displays IE7 pages correctly in many cases. Some of the web-based products I use at client sites (Jira being one, an issue management system used in software development environments) won’t display correctly in either IE8 or IE7 compatibility mode. Next step? Download and install Firefox so I can use this web-based product to do the job required for my client.  IE7 worked fine, but the application is no longer usable with IE8, or IE8 in IE7 compatibility mode. We could blame the vendor who created Jira but it was Microsoft’s IE8 upgrade that broke the compatibility with its own previous version.

I’m not trying to split hairs or whine about this one user experience. It may in fact have been an issue because IE8 was in beta. The broader point I’m attempting to make here is that we need to put more emphasis on browser software that increases compatibility with previous iterations of the product, because end users increasingly rely on their browser to perform their jobs and use the web.

Microsoft would likely claim they are doing exactly that by being the most web standards complaint browser, but breaking backward compatibility means a degraded user experience and another period of adjustment while vendors and site creators update their technology to be compatible with a new browser version. Maybe IE8 will turn the page on this problem, by being web standards compliant and reducing IE-specific rendering issues. And it’s IE7 compatibility mode could ease the transition to IE8’s new approach. For all of us IE users sake, my hopes are IE8 is moving toward this increased compatibility.

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