When good browsers go bad -- and they all do

Better browsers. Better standards. Better tools. So why are Web pages still breaking?

Jeffrey Zeldman must have thought he'd never live to see the day. Ten years after he co-founded the Web Standards Project, all of the major browser vendors have shown renewed commitment to supporting World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards in the last few years -- and they're following through.

The specifications in the latest standards initiatives are tighter than ever. Web authoring tools are generating more compliant code. Two of the three rendering engines that underpin the major browsers in use today are open source. And, for the first time ever, the latest version of Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer 8, will operate strictly in standards-compliant mode by default. In other words, it will support the W3C standards before it provides backward compatibility with nonstandard methods supported by Microsoft's previous browsers.

Those who lived through the browser wars of the '90s might think that hell has frozen over, were it not for one, small problem: Users still experience plenty of problems on the Web. A recent report issued by browser vendor Opera Software showed that the average page on the Web strays from WC3 page markup specifications 47 times. Overall, just 4.13 percent of the 3.5 million Web pages Opera searched were fully standards-compliant when tested against the W3C validation suite.

Why? Because there are still older Web sites that haven't been updated, and many developers still don't design their pages to meet modern standards and best practices. Different browser vendors still interpret some standards differently in some cases and don't fully implement all of the W3C-standard features in others. Developers for some Web sites still lock out users who have the "wrong" browser by using whitelists or blacklists that block unapproved browsers or browser versions.

As for the standards themselves, some existing specifications still suffer from ambiguities or leave some desired features undefined. And improvements in the thoroughness of new standards, such as CSS 2.1, also have a down side: They have slowed the standardization process -- a fact that has frustrated some Web developers and could tempt browser vendors to once again innovate outside of the standards framework.

Turning the Microsoft ship

Microsoft's Internet Explorer doesn't dominate the browser market in the way it once did, but it still has the largest market share by far. IE currently accounts for about 70 percent of the browsers in use, down from a high of about 95 percent in the pre-Firefox days. Of that 70 percent, about half are running IE7 while about one quarter are still using IE6 or earlier versions.

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Robert L. Mitchell

Computerworld
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