MIX - Microsoft drops few clues about IE 8

Microsoft refuses to name a timetable when asked about a commitment to future IE updates

Microsoft dodged questions this week at the Mix07 Web developer conference about when it plans to update its Internet Explorer (IE) browser to Version 8.

During a session on the development of its current browser, IE 7, Chris Wilson, Microsoft's platform architect for Internet Explorer, wouldn't name a timetable when asked about a commitment to more frequent updates. He slipped past the question by saying, "I don't see another time when we go another five years without an upgrade."

Microsoft essentially shut down Internet Explorer development after it rolled out IE 6 in August 2001; IE 7 went final five years and two months later.

"It's a challenge," Wilson said. "Some want us to update in every service pack, or even in the monthly security updates, but that makes a moving target [for developers]."

At last year's Mix event, Microsoft suggested that IE would be refreshed every 12 to 18 months. However, Wilson said that every two years would be more likely. "There's no exact date," he said, "[but] your expectation of having a new browser platform every couple of years is a valid point." Two years from IE 7's October 2006 release would put IE 8 on track to appear in the fall of 2008.

Microsoft was criticized for the long gap between IE 6 and IE 7, with most analysts citing the lack of an update as one reason why Mozilla's Firefox browser has been able to steal about 15 percent of the market from IE.

Wilson also refused to spell out specific changes planned for the next IE. "I'm not going to show you a feature list, because I'm not allowed to," he said.

He did spill a few clues about what Microsoft would emphasize in IE 8, however, or might ask developers to code for. "As always, security is job No. 1." The development team will also make IE more compliant with Cascading Style Sheet 2.1 layout standards and increase the browser's object model to make it more compliant with other browsers. "[Asynchronous JavaScript and XML also] needs more client-side APIs [application programming interfaces] for local storage or a better security model for mashups," said Wilson.

One change that sounded definite would be to require Web site developers to "opt in" to IE's standards mode. "We have to balance compliance [with standards] with site compatibility any time we change IE," he said. "We have to come up with approaches to solve this problem." Microsoft's solution would be to make developers shoulder the responsibility if their sites break when rendered by IE 8. Right now, Wilson said, "we can't tell if [site] authors intended standards [mode] or if they expect [their site's] behavior not to change" when they choose IE's standards mode.

"In the future, we will need authors to opt in to standards," he said. "We don't know how this will work [yet]. This gives us the freedom to do some great things, to break compatibility with CSS or change [Document Object Model] APIs without breaking pages."

According to the newest numbers from Web metrics vendor Net Applications, IE retains a commanding market share of 78 percent; Firefox accounts for 15.4 percent. Mozilla has said it will launch the next major Firefox update before the end of the year.

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Gregg Keizer

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