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An MSN-TV Complaint

July 18, 2003

A concerned reader writes:

Your site: FAILS to satisfy the MSN-TV Browser! It bleeds off the viewable screen to the right and since the WebTv Browser does not permit side scrolling, your pages are a MESS!

What do you propose to do about this? You can find a link to the MSN Developer site here (a bit down the page): and from there, Download the MSN-TV Viewer to see how your pages look on a TV Browser!

— Very Truly Yours, Magic Dave

Some days these posts just write themselves.

Dear Magic Dave,

Thanks for your letter, it caused me to think. What did I think about? Well, do you remember that scene in Taxi Driver, where De Niro was looking in the mirror, and he was like, Are you looking at me? Are you looking at me? There’s no one else here, so you must be looking at me? Yeah. That was pretty cool.

But anyway, your letter. So here’s the deal. I like accessibility. Specifically, I like the power that CSS provides in allowing the user to browse with any anything they happen to have. You’ve got a Palm? Come on in! You’re using a screen reader? Sure, you too. You want to visit my site in Mosaic? Even you!

See, Magic Dave, the great thing about CSS is that if a user agent doesn’t support it it doesn’t use it. This allows me to go full–out nuts in my style, while keeping the site’s content accessible and viewable to everybody. It’s a beautiful thing. Except when it doesn’t work.

So what’s the problem then? Well, as best as I can tell, it’s this: MSN-TV seems to want to render ‘screen’ style sheets, designed for colour computer monitors — a decision I can’t support on a device with only 544 pixels of horizontal resolution. If it were to realize that there’s a special media type called ‘tv’ and use that, we’d both be enjoying a beer and watching the sunset right about now. But we’re not, are we?

Why won’t MSN-TV support my site? I’ve done everything in my power to make sure the proper user agents render it, and the ones that just can’t keep up don’t even bother. I’m not a miracle worker. I can’t fix MSN-TV.

So the ball’s back in your court, Magic Dave. Why do you use a broken browser that makes a mess of my wonderful site? I see you maintain a page chock full of great tips on why MSN-TV is better than a PC, so I have a feeling you won’t change your browser of choice to make me happy any time soon.

It’s tempting for me to say that you shouldn’t have to, that browsers should be better about supporting what they can handle and admitting what they can’t — but you were pretty insistent that I do something about it, as if I’m on the hook for this one. Since it turns out it’s your choice that causes my site to render improperly, what do you propose to do about it?

Incidentally, have you ever heard of cement canoe racing? A bunch of engineering students get together and race big, clunky canoes, literally made of concrete. It strikes me as a bit odd that they’d start with a material so obviously wrong for speed and finesse, as well as something that by all rights shouldn’t work for the purpose they intend. They do it for the challenge, I suppose, and the sense of satisfaction of wrangling a result out of an impossible situation.

Nah, I don’t bring it up for any particular reason, but I just had one more question: do you really design web pages on MSN-TV?

Reader Comments

MikeyC says:
July 18, 08h

“I did a bit of research, and up until the very latest release (2.8, in April) MSN-TV did not support @import either.”

That’s April 2002 by the way. I just dug it up on my HD (i forgot that I had it installed) and the copyright says:

MSN TV Viewer 2.8 (Build 20)
Copyright (C) 1997-2002 Microsoft Corporation

Jai says:
July 18, 11h

Wow, that’s crazy. I thought those TV browsers were just for geezers. I used to work at Circuit City, and we sold WebTV. I don’t think I ever sold one to someone under 65. Maybe Magic Dave is just a cool geezer who is internet savy. I mean, that’s cooler than most geezers. And, mind you, I am among the formost of “youngins” who respect the wisdom of “geezers”.

But MSN (ok, point one- top choice for “processed cheese” internet) + TV (This device is not made for the internet, it was invented before computers even exsited)- a bad combo, I agree.

But I feel Magic Dave’s pain. It’s not your issue, though, Mr. Shea. Magic Dave should be pummling Mr. Gates about this problem. Seriously, MSN-TV only has 544px of horizontal res? That’s not even a “real” resolution!

<sarcasm>By the way, what do you think about me making a “themes and look–alikes” version of the CSS Zen Garden to look like Dave’s Magic Site?</sarcasm>

Oh man… now I stepped over the line… (sorry)

MikeyC says:
July 18, 11h

I try my best to serve something presentable to various UserAgents, but there is only so much one can do (or should do). I like the “no soup for you” approach to Netscape 4 using @import as the content is still accessible but at the same time it nudges the user to upgrade, but unfortunately there isn’t such a clear cut solution for Web-TV.

I can only be concerned about UserAgent quirks when a particular UserAgent has what I deem to be ‘significant’ marketshare (usually >2%). We use the ‘box model hack’ because IE 5 has significant marketshare. When IE 5 has the marketshare of Web-TV many won’t even bother.

Catering to Web-TV is not the answer. When more and more sites go CSS and start breaking in Web-TV then something will have to be done about its support for standards. Joe Consumer may not frequent CSS Zen Garden, but he probably frequents sites like ESPN. I wish consumers complained more to the companies that built their browser (in the case of Web-TV its something you are paying for too!) than to web designers who are just trying to do the right thing by building standards-based, accessible sites.

Keith says:
July 18, 11h

Man, where do they come from? I’ll be honest, I can’t say I really feel for Magic Dave – I mean this is fairly obviously not your problem as a designer. I don’t know anyone who designs or even tests for MSN-TV.

If Magic Dave has an issue with the way his browser renders the Garden, and many, many other sites out there I imagine, than he needs to take it to Redmond.

I wish him luck with that. Really.

July 18, 11h

So I guess Magic Dave should have said:

My browser fails to satisfy your site.

There are so many things to be said about an email like this….good thing you said em and not me.

Dave S. says:
July 18, 11h

MikeyC - I did a bit of research, and up until the very latest release (2.8, in April) MSN-TV did not support @import either. Now it does, because Microsoft is working on its CSS. See this brief list — I find it highly interesting that :before and :after are supported.’

Still, for proper CSS-2 support, they’ll eventually have to concede it’s TV media, and not screen. Until that happens, I completely agree with everything in your last paragraph.

Jai says:
July 18, 11h

Here’s just a thought Dave, but s it poissble to build into the Zen Garden a simple script (probably in the head) that uses something other than @import when @import is not supported?

(I’m not backing up Magic Dave, just thinking if it really is all that difficult to implement. - I guess my question is; if you used - <link href=”some.css” rel=”stylesheet” type=”text/css” />, would it render correctly in MSN-TV?)

Just wondering.

MikeyC says:
July 18, 12h

“but s it poissble to build into the Zen Garden a simple script (probably in the head) that uses something other than @import when @import is not supported?”

The problem is that MSN-TV does support @import. If it didn’t there wouldn’t be a problem as it would simply get an unstyled page like Netscape 4.

Jai says:
July 18, 12h

Gotta love cut and pasted quotes that show how badly you type! (in referal to myself, folks)

“But keep in mind that the @import method is not supported.”

That’s what it says on the page that Dave refers to.

And that’s why I asked “s it poisable” (hehehe… that’s supposed to be “is it possible”)

Steve says:
July 20, 11h

Wish my name had a cool adjective.

July 22, 01h

I have the same problem with the Palm Web Browser 2.0 that shipped with the Tungsten C - it fails to use the CSS media type of “handheld” and instead renders “screen”. I mean, granted there is a ‘screen’ on the Palm TungC but uh… it is most certaintly a handheld device, no?

Terence de Giere says:
August 18, 03h

I was just about to input something to the msnTV developer site about this. But after getting signed up with a .NET password etc., I still could not get into the site to make a post, even when using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser.

msnTV’s browser just does not handle CSS positioning adequately. Now that one cannot hide a style sheet from it without a lot of extra trouble, it will mess up any reasonably complex site formatted with CSS positioning. Any modern site that has good accessibility such as this one nonetheless needs adequate standards support in the browsers that access it. I do not feel Web developers should be forced to support bad implementations of browser technology.

MSNTV does reasonably well with simple style sheets, but to support more complex pages, it forces a developer to devote his resources to a custom version of the page created using client or server side scripting to deliver a custom style for the page just for this one browser. This is a waste of time and resources. The MSNTV browser simply has bungled standards support, and standards support is the holy grail of acessibility.

Microsoft should not have implemented the @import rule for this browser’s CSS capability until it also properly supported the HTML/XHTML media attribute for the link element and the @media rule in CSS2.

HTML and XHTML and CSS were created specifically with interoperability and device and browser independence in mind. I do not think Microsoft really wants this. Web sites with resources to create versions for specific browsers, can of couse do custom page versions.

For example,, although heavy with scripting and graphics and is generally not very accessible, does make a nod to standards and is formatted using CSS in the forward looking way. If you go to that site with a standards non-compliant browser like Netscape 4, they won’t let you in. If you go using msnTV, they serve you a page designed for a PDA, which works, but is pretty dull.

Requiring a small site with fewer resources to jump through hoops to support a bad browser implementation goes against the open spirit of the Web, and creates innumberable problems for everyone concerned, and holds back the momentum that is gaining to make the Web accessible to everyone.

One of the goals of the World Wide Web Consortium is single authoring of Web pages, meaning you design a page for universal accessibility, and then provide styling via CSS for multiple devices. This greatly reduces developmental resources required to make a sophisiticated looking site. The device selects the style appropriate for its device. Simple and elegant compared to the method of having to make custom pages, custom scripts, browser detection, just to make a page readable on a specific browser.

Take Opera software - they have a TV set top version of their browser, and they have taken care to implement CSS properly.

MSNTV basically supports the kind of HTML written for Internet Explorer 3.0 and Netscape 3.0 with the addition of some CSS. So it is using a presentation model that is five or six years out of date, and it has not tiered improved support in a way that maximizes backward and forward compatibility.

There are too many different kinds of browsers that need to access the Internet for developers to waste time figuring out how to make custom adjustments to get pages to work with bad software. It is the responsibility of the browser vendors to adopt the necessary compliance with Web standards established by the ISO, the W3C, the ECMA, the IEC and so on.