Microsoft has released a beta of Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) among other developer technologies aimed at creating rich internet applications (RIAs).
The company is hoping that the IE8 beta will promote the development of applications that have the same look and feel across different browsers. Betas of Silverlight 2 and Expression Studio 2 are also available for download.
Silverlight 2 is an update to Microsoft's cross-browser software for building and delivering multimedia applications on the web, and Expression is Microsoft's graphic and web-design suite.
IE 8 made its public debut at the company's annual MIX 08 show, in a demonstration by Dean Hachamovitch, IE general manager. In particular, he seemed keen to show uniformity of application experiences between IE8 and competing browsers Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari.
Microsoft developed IE before some web standards existed, including CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and RSS. As a result, older versions of the browser don't support them. But with the growing popularity of open-source browser Mozilla Firefox, IE needs to stay current with web standards, so that web pages can be developed once to look the same across all browsers.
Microsoft had a stab at improving support of web standards with IE7 in 2006, but wasn't entirely successful. The software giant is determined to get things right with IE8, Hachamovitch said.
"We want to get the web pages to look the same on all the browsers," he said. "IE will interoperate with web content in the most standards-compliant way it can."
Support for Cascading Style Sheets 2.1 (CSS) is a big part of this. CSS is a standard technology for separating the appearance of a web page from the content. Its specification is overseen by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C),
"Today, differences between browsers simply waste too much developer time," Hachamovitch said. "Real-world interoperability begins with CSS support."
The CSS problem is not unique to Microsoft IE, said Greg DeMichillie, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. He said there are different levels of support for CSS in different browsers. "That's why you get these buggy sites where the pictures don't line up," he explained.
The reason all browsers don't support CSS in the same way is that the standard is complicated, and there isn't a formal test suite to show how an application written according to the CSS standard should work in a browser, DeMichillie said.
Because of the differences in browser support for the standard, developers writing applications for the web still have to test them on different browsers to ensure they look the same once rendered online, DeMichillie said. It's a serious problem for developers, he said.
The other way Microsoft plans to help solve the interoperability problems is by working with the W3C to make sure the standard itself inspires uniformity across browsers. To this end, Microsoft is submitting 702 test cases to the W3C CSS working group, and is making them available to developers through a BSD licence.
"We want to make sure we are interoperating the standard the same way developers are," Hachamovitch said.
While the CSS problem "is not going to disappear overnight", Directions on Microsoft's DeMichillie said anything Microsoft can do to help remedy the situation "is a good thing".