During the browser wars of the 1990's, web authors were faced with the daunting task of supporting incompatible implementations of the Document Object Model and CSS support across Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. Today, the situation has improved immeasurably with regard to the Document Object Model where all major browsers support the W3C Document Object Model at least to some degree, however Internet Explorer's failure to implement the CSS Standards fully have become the new bottleneck preventing the advancement of the web.

While Mozilla, Firefox, Opera and Safari have steadily improved their support for the CSS Standards, Internet Explorer for Windows has remained stagnant. The major limiting factor preventing authors from using advanced CSS techniques are the bugs and incomplete implementation of CSS in Internet Explorer.

In a recent interview of Gary Schare, Director of Windows Product Management at Microsoft, I have found what is an answer to a long-standing question asked by thousands of Web developers around the world: is Microsoft going to enhance IE's support to Web standards (namely CSS 2 and transparent PNG)? The answer is no.

Here is what Gary says:

We could change the CSS support and many other standards elements within the browser rendering platform. But in doing so, we would also potentially break a lot of things.

This is simply not the full story.

First, a little background.

By the time CSS2 had been standardized, Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator had already implemented incompatible implementations which resulted in a number of web pages being coded to work around the bugs in each of these browsers. Introducing a browser which supported the CSS Standard correctly would have caused many of these pages to break. How could a browser implement the new CSS Standard while not breaking the web?

Tantek Çelik solved this problem in Microsoft's own Internet Explorer for the Macintosh by introducing a technique called Doctype Switching. Doctype Switching allows authors to choose whether their page should be displayed in backwards-compatible mode or in standards compatible mode through the use of specific DOCTYPEs. Mozilla followed Tantek's lead and introduced Doctype Switching as well. Today, all major browsers from Internet Explorer 6 for Windows, Mozilla, Firefox, Opera 7 to Safari implement Doctype switching.

Due to the steadily increasing popularity of Mozilla and Firefox, many sites already take advantage of Doctype switching to control how their web pages display. According to Bob Clary, a former member of the now-defunct Netscape Evangelism team, between 85% and 90% of web pages currently use either no DOCTYPE or use one which invokes backwards-compatibility mode. Many of the remaining 10% to 15% of the pages, intentionally use the DOCTYPE to invoke Standards mode. Bob arrived at these figures through studying the top 70 sites in the United States as well as the sites recorded in Mozilla's Tech Evangelism bug database.

If Microsoft implemented full support for CSS in Standards mode, it would have no effect on 85% to 90% of the pages on the web. Of the remaining 10% to 15%, many of the pages would not have problems either since they have already been designed to support the excellent CSS support in Mozilla, Opera and Safari.

The advantages for web authors of being able to use the full CSS Standards range from improving browser compatibility, reducing maintenance costs, improving page loading speed, reducing bandwidth costs, improving accessibility, and permiting advanced compeling visual designs.

By choosing to not support CSS fully, Microsoft is breaking the web.

In its short, 2 1/2 year life, the Netscape Evangelism team helped literally thousands of authors and adminstrators of web sites around the world to improve their support for the W3C DOM and CSS Standards. If such a small group with limited resources can help change the web, imagine what Microsoft could do with its resources if it only tried.

(Thanks a lot to Bob Clary for editing heavily my prose and giving me hard numbers, and to Eric Meyer for his helpful comments).