February 24, 2008

Browser version targeting: grief or no?

For those of us who build websites, the upcoming Microsoft browser version targeting issue is something to take note of. This is a development in the upcoming Internet Explorer 8 that will allow you to specify which browser(s) a website is designed for.

As Jeffrey Zeldman wrote at AListApart.com in Version Targeting: Threat or Menace?:

I'd like to live in a world where … version targeting wasn't needed. Designing with web standards ought to be enough, and anyone who works on websites should know how to do it. Browsers ought to have near-perfect standards compliance by now, and if they don't, their manufacturers should switch to folk music.

… To understand version targeting — which we ought to try to do, since Microsoft intends to implement it and hopes at least some of us will opt in — let us examine two different sets of customers that Microsoft's browser must satisfy.

I recommend the article because it explains the whys and wherefores pretty easily. And because, apparently, the only way to opt out is to opt in.

Why couldn't Microsoft have just stuck to displaying according to DOCTYPE — and, in the absence of a proper DOCTYPE, switch to quirks mode? Well, as Jeffrey puts it:

The DOCTYPE switch once allowed browser makers to properly support standards-based design while not "breaking" ineptly authored sites. But as The Web Standards Project's Aaron Gustafson explained in Issue No. 251, the presence of a complete DOCTYPE in the head of an (X)HTML document no longer reliably indicates that the developer knew what she was doing and the page should be rendered in standards mode.

I haven't been crazy about the idea of version targeting because it's just one more weird thing we have to implement. I had hoped that, with more and more adoption of Web Standards by browser makers, paying attention to browser quirks would, over time, just go away.

But this versioning thing is not just going to go away — and, it's up to those of us who don't want sites to be thrown into quirks mode to use it. Again, from Jeffrey:

If IE8 acts like IE8 by default, then IE8 might break group two's websites (and not just break them in quotes: we're talking about scripting, here). Breaking millions of sites is unacceptable to Microsoft's brass and to the creators of those websites. It's to prevent that breakage that Microsoft's browser developers came up with the new switch. To do its job, the new switch must work the same way the DOCTYPE switch originally worked: namely, it is activated when knowledgeable developers opt in; otherwise it is off by default.

With DOCTYPE switching, "off by default" means "in (non-standards) quirks mode." With version targeting it means "the same way IE7 rendered this content." The behavior is the same in both cases: if you want improved rendering, you opt in.

So, on the other hand, most of us who have been building websites for a while have undoubtedly experienced the unwelcome discovery that a site designed earlier displays poorly in new(er) browsers — and that could happen no matter what coding you've used. So this could be a nice feature that could enable you to assign display type to a specific browser.

I do wonder, however, how Microsoft is going to pull this off: do they build the various display types right into the browser? If so, may we expect amazing bloat? Or will we — and those of us who are dragged kicking and screaming into using version targeting — have a happy discovery?

For details, see ALA's Beyond DOCTYPE: Web Standards, Forward Compatibility, and IE8

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