Internet Explorer has made huge strides in the last couple of years. Microsoft has at last begun to lay the ghost of IE6 to rest with a solid, fast, standards compliant, reasonably up-to-date (not quite the same thing) forward-looking browser with the cleanest UI in the business.
However, one issue clouds the horizon. Other browsers, most notably Google Chrome, rev much faster that IE. The importance of this is that, by bringing out new versions on shorter (much shorter, in some cases) timescales, other browsers gain a clear advantage. They get emerging specifications and technologies out to end-users faster and therefore shape the future of the web in a way that IE could not touch for many years. This, in turn, builds a sense of momentum which increases the loyalty of the user base. Indeed, it is a major factor in growing the user-base, as we can see clearly with Chrome. With IE, by contrast, we have lived for years with a strong sense of Microsoft holding everyone else back.
Microsoft needs to speed up the cycle. I wondered if we would see any signs of this after the RTW of IE9 last month. Well, yes we can. Yesterday, Microsoft released Platform Preview 1 of IE10. Given Microsoft's record, this is absolutely astounding and provides further evidence that the bad old days for IE really are receding. Of course, after three weeks of development, things are not that different to IE9, but the HTML5 story is improved, thanks chiefly to several new CSS3 features.
IE9's HTML5 story is mixed. On the one hand, the browser lays a strong foundation for the future with comprehensive DirectX rendering and a much-repeated commitment to HTML5 as a future standard. On the other hand, the feature list count for HTML5 is noticeably lower than its nearest rivals. Put simply, IE9 supports less HTML5 than others, but supports it well. The IE team has repeatedly stated its position on this. Their main argument is that IE9 supports 'site-ready' HTML5 that will interoperate across all today's browsers and avoids features on which there is still disagreement or which may not make it to the final specification. A secondary theme is that it was more important to develop the sub-systems that underpin a great HTML5 experience than strive after having the longest HTML5 feature list.
Broadly, the argument plays quite well. Given IE's poor reputation amongst web developers, it is understandable that they want to stress their commitment to interoperability. Certainly, some of the other browsers are now carrying the burden of 'HTML5' features that won't actually make it into the W3C Recommendation (whenever it finally arrives) and features which are not broadly interoperable with other browsers. Of course, it's not really as clear cut as this. Some of the features that were once counted as part of HTML5 are still very much alive and kicking and will almost certainly be incorporated into future versions of HTML.
Try using each of the HTML5-enabled browsers in turn to browse the various HTML5 showcases provided by different vendors, and you will quickly get an idea of where HTML5 interoperability is really at, currently. And yes, the other HTML5 browsers tend to fare well on Microsoft's HTML5 preview site in terms of functionality, suggesting that Microsoft's take on HTML5 does indeed approximate to a 'lowest common denominator' interoperable approach. Of course, performance is a different story and seems to be the dominant theme of Microsoft's showcase apps.
The myth that Microsoft spends its days subverting every standard going whilst all other players effortlessly deliver interoperable perfection has never been accurate since a brief period in the first half of the 1990's when the company first ‘won’ this reputation thanks to some fairly cynical actions (nothing, of course, to do with web standards). It is certainly the case that the complaint of poor standards compliance can no longer be honestly sustained with respect to IE9. However, IE9 illustrates a dilemma that all browser vendors face. It can take an eon for emerging web specifications to stabilise and for standards organisations to ratify and publish a given standard. It simply isn’t the role of organisations like the W3C to be in the vanguard of developing new specifications for everyone else to follow. There has been a huge misunderstanding about this for years. The W3C, and others, follow where the industry leads. They work to foster collaboration and agreement amongst those who are actually coming up with the ideas, trying out new innovations and pushing the boundaries. That means that the more innovative browsers will always be ahead of the curve and, consequently, in danger of subverting interoperability.
This, then, is the big question about IE’s HTML5 support. Now that Microsoft has convincingly closed the field on its rivals, will it be content simply to follow where others lead, trailing at the rear end of a densely-packed group of HTML.next ‘feature-athletes’? Or should it attempt to move closer to the front of the pack in order to more effectively set the pace. Well, long-distance running is all about pacing and strategy. If you are in the race for the long-haul, it often pays to hold back for a while. I think it probably suits Microsoft's purposes for the time being to merely match the pace set by others whilst all the time quietly building on their blindingly-fast DirectX rendering engine. And after all, we are still some way off seeing an equivalent Microsoft HTML5 technology for mobile devices which is where, increasingly, it really counts. I suspect they are attempting to maintain their stamina and build up their strength for a future push to the front. After all, Microsoft always preferred being in the industry driving seat.