Microsoft Talks Up Internet Explorer 7, Hedges On IE 8 Timeframe

Wilson's jibe drew laughs from the standing-room-only crowd, but underpinning it was a serious point about Microsoft's tricky position as it works to improve Internet Explorer, the dominant Web browser. Because Web designers are so accustomed to creating workarounds for Internet Explorer's bugs and quirks, changes made by Microsoft to increase standards compatibility in its browser run the risk of breaking wide swathes of the Web.

Internet Explorer 6 remains the world's most popular Web browser, according to several tracking services, but IE 7 has slowly gained ground since its release in October. After a five-year gap since its last comprehensive Internet Explorer revision, version 6, Microsoft packed IE 7 with security advances and technical changes to better support modern Web standards. In the process, however, it annoyed users and Web designers who confronted a trail of malfunctioning Web sites.

Microsoft's cardinal rule for its IE team is "don't break the Web," but balancing standards compliance and development best-practices with the realities of existing Web development practices is a tricky task, Wilson said. He quoted an IM from his boss: "I'm really concerned that we're breaking stuff in the name of goodness, and that all users and developers will walk away with is 'stuff broke.'"

Microsoft's track record of spotty standards compliance and unique programming idiosyncrasies is partially to blame for its current headaches. Web developers built sites to accommodate IE's quirks. When the IE development team fixed those quirks and improved the browser's standards compliance, sites with workarounds started breaking. Microsoft still struggles to strike the right balance of improving IE without leaving a trail of destruction in its wake, Wilson said.

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Wilson devoted part of his session to extolling IE 7's virtues -- most notably, its security advances, such as phising detection tools that generate clear, plain-English warnings about unsafe surfing activities. The goal is to protect tech neophytes and guard against the rising tide of malicious Web lures and scams, he said.

But the trickiness of balancing competing needs was evident even there. During the session's Q&A, developers for two separate credit unions rose to speak about frustrations they'd encountered with IE 7's security precautions. One developer's site uses client certificates, which he called "a dark, cobwebby corner of the browser."

"There's several error messages that sound like everybody is going to die if you click 'OK,'" he said.

Aside from its security-focused changes, IE 7 marked the first time Microsoft specifically sought to address Web developers' problems in its browser update. A flood of rending fixes and improvements were made; in CSS support alone, more than 200 bugs were squashed, Wilson said.

That focus on developers' needs will continue in IE 8, Wilson said -- but he shied away from offering a timeline for the next version's development, or committing to a feature set. Last year at Mix, the Internet Explorer team said they would like to be on a 12- to 18-month release cycle. This time, Wilson said he could envision a two-year timeframe, but he stressed that Microsoft hasn't nailed down any plans.

"There's no exact date. It's a challange for us because there are some people out there who want us to upgrade the platform in our monthly security dates. That makes it really hard for Web developers; it makes it a moving target," Wilson said. "But we won't be waiting five years. Clearly, five years was a little bit off the end of the spectrum."

Wilson was similarly guarded about development plans for IE 8. Saying he's "not allowed" to go public with a feature list, he instead listed some of the priority areas the IE team is focusing on. They include improving inoperability between the object model of Internet Explorer and other browsers, improving support for CSS 2.1, and increasing the client-side APIs available for AJAX development.

Some attendees at the crammed session said they'd like to hear more concrete plans. Jeff Atwood, technical evangelist of Microsoft partner Vertigo Software, a development services firm, said Microsoft still needs to win back developers' trust after the long post-IE 6 release lag.

"I think they need to be more public about the timeline. We've been in an abusive relationship," Atwood said.

While he'd like more details about future IE development, Atwood said he was pleased with IE 7, which he called a "huge step forward." Vertigo uses IE 7 in-house and encourages its clients to upgrade. So far, it's generally meeting with success, though it still encounters holdouts.

"Where I see a lot of reluctance is enterprise clients, where the platform is locked down," Atwood said.