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March 21, 2006

Things you might not have expected to read on this site: I hung out with the Internet Explorer team, and they’re fun people.

I decided to keep notes during MIX06 this week. I was interested in coming to this event to hear about Microsoft’s future plans for Internet Explorer. It’s been a predictably Microsoft-heavy event, but I hardly think exposure to this world is a bad thing. It is, after all, how a huge chunk of those building for the web approach their development, and at the root of it, we’re all doing basically the same thing with different tools.

Dinner with the IE Team

Thanks mainly to Tantek Çelik, I managed to show up at an IE team dinner the first night at the Venetian Hotel here in Las Vegas. We shared a table with Chris Wilson, and another guy whose name I remember bits and pieces of (but not enough to attempt to reconstruct here).

Of course at some point I managed to ask about the more recent update to IE7, which was released during this conference. But what I found more interesting was the tangents about the difficulty of true XML parsing, as experienced by Çelik and Wilson alike when attempting to implement in their respective browsers (IE/Mac and IE/Win). And of course, I’ve been extremely interested in the CSS updates that have occurred between IE7 Beta 2 Preview Release, and this new MIX build that came out yesterday.

Summary for the rest of us: Floats, overflow, and the like? Fixed. Done. It’s over. No more inconsistency, it looks like that’s a wrap. We get min-width and max-width. Oh, joyous day. CSS2 selectors? You name it. There’s only one remaining which might not make it into IE7, the rest are all there.

Naturally, I had to bring up (probably more than once) the question about CSS tables; namely, when will we get them? Cause that’s what us designer types are really waiting for. Grid-based layouts in IE? Hell yeah. Long story short: not IE7. Maybe IE7.5. It’s on their list. Maybe some of you can back me up on this, but I’d much rather see CSS tables implemented first, before generated content. Floats have only ever been a hackish way to layout a web page; we need something more intelligent, something that can say “yes please, I really would like column a to be as high as column b” and have it stick. Are you with me?

Bill Gates Keynote

Summarizing this one will be a bit tricky, as it was a bit of a rambling mind dump about the next few things Microsoft is doing in the web sphere. IE7, Vista, Atlas, a bit on WS-*, etc. There were a few guest speakers - the CTO of MySpace, who proceeded to show all the wildly innovative things MySpace is doing with Microsoft technology (useless photo rotating widgets and the like); a fellow from the BBC (I missed his title) who was a much more engaging speaker than either of the previous two, and proceeded to tell us about the archival problems that the BBC faces (600,000 hours of programming going back to the 30’s) and the technological solutions they’re exploring to make that accessible to the British public; and finally, Tim O’Reilly came on to interview Gates for a half hour or so.

Gates himself touched on some of the IE improvements we can expect, things like UI and security upgrades, and a bit of lip service to the CSS update. What was most interesting to me is that he issued a mea culpa about Microsoft’s sitting on IE for so long, and that IE7 is definitely not the end of the line this time.

The Tim O’Reilly interview was interesting, as Tim and the audience had a few tough questions that could have been insightful, had Gates answered them at face value. Questions about competition, mainly — the theme seemed to be, should we take you at your word this time, given what we know from the last 10 years? But the answers rarely matched the question, and meandered into other Microsoft territory that seemed more in line with the conference agenda.

Dean Hachamovitch Keynote

Dean started with a quick history of IE, that left off at 2001. After that? (sound: crickets chirping) Anything short of an apology from Microsoft at this point is not enough: “we messed up,” said Dean. But now, “we get it”. They’re fixing it. And it’s time to show that, and keep showing it with continual improvement.

The new IE7 build was then announced, and we got a look at some of the UI/security updates. Tabs, a customizable drop-down search box, SSL certificate warnings, and the like. Lots of catch-up to everyone else, of course, but there were a few neat new things on that end.

The new search box is going to allow you to search any site, and will notify the user if a site can potentially be added to the drop-down list. Driving that is an open format that anyone can implement. The security updates are much more obtrusive, trying to actively prevent people from falling victim to all the current online scams. If you change your security settings to something unsafe, IE will nag you until you change them back, and give you a one-click method to do it. Some usability trade-offs happening here, but I think the industry is universally figuring out that ease of use doesn’t outweigh safety.

So, CSS? Where are we now? Dean loaded up a couple of examples from Position is Everything and Eric Meyer’s css/edge demos, and showed IE6 and IE7 rendering. We didn’t get many more details than that, but there’s clearly a lot more improvement happening.

On to RSS. Aside from the usual catch-up, there are a few cool things they’re doing here. Dean showed an Amazon wishlist feed, where IE exposes a couple of smart filters that allow a user to filter/sort the feed by price, name, description etc. Then he showed a vanilla Flickr feed where he could hit a button and kick in a full-screen slideshow of the high-res photos. Though Apple’s blue swirling RSS screensaver in Tiger is nicely rendered, this insta-screensaver from an RSS feed is seriously cool.

On to Atlas, where I tuned out to polish my notes. Atlas is essentially an AJAX and ASP.NET framework for rapid application development. Seems like a good idea if you’re using ASP.NET. I’m not.

Side note: during the morning, I heard both Gates and Dean mention the term “beyond the browser” a few times. Hmm.

That’s all I’ve got the time to write up for now. I’ll likely come back in and supplement this with my notes from the Microsoft Expression sessions later in the afternoon, and the Future of IE7 panel with Dean, Chris Wilson, Eric Meyer, Molly, and a few others.

dtamas says:
March 21, 10h

Cool review, thanks!

March 21, 10h

It looks like the IE7 team has done an admirable job of playing catch up, but I continue to find myself unwilling to accept that a company with an open disdain for standards will ever allow any program - especially one as important as IE - to totally embrace full compliance. Sure, they’ve come a long way in this release, but I’m worried about all of the proprietary extensions and tags that will almost certainly rear their ugly heads in IE 7.5 and beyond.

I certainly hope I’m wrong, but Microsoft’s history of developing and exclusively supporting its own proprietary technology (or changing an open format just enough to make it proprietary) is long-standing and doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. Just look at what happened to the supposed XML support in Office.

March 21, 10h

Of the entire list of upgrades IE7 is getting I like the idea of the search box being able to search any website.

Great write up, and thanks for asking the tough questions over dinner.

March 21, 11h

Thanks for the write up Dave, very interesting. Looks like the IE dev team have been working hard to put things right.

March 21, 11h

I’m with you on tables before generated content. While generated content is clever and seems useful at first glance, I don’t see it as solving a real-world problem. What with the CMSes and frameworks we have these days, with their script-fu and filters galore, most of the obvious uses for CSS generated content are taken care of for us already – and in a much better way.

Ian Muir says:
March 21, 12h

It’s nice to see a write-up from a somebody who’s not on the Microsoft payroll. Most of the stuff on the virtual Mix site is a bit over-hyped.

It’s nice that they’re on board with most of the CSS2 selectors. It will be interesting to see what actually gets added before the official realease, expecially considering the improvements made in each of the 3 betas so far.

I’m actually very interested in hearing about what the guys at Microsoft have to say about better standards compliance on their own sites. Even the remix CSS contest was done with some of the worst markup I’ve ever seen (to the point that they actually changed the html 3 times during the contest). Has there been any discussion about general standards compliance and/or accessiblility other then IE7 having better CSS support? Also, any discussion about the Expression web design software?

March 21, 12h

no way! get out!

Shumway says:
March 21, 13h

I always find it refreshing to hear what ‘the other side’ has to say about things. Too often we whine and bitch and moan without actually getting to see what the people we complain about are actually doing.

March 21, 15h

I’ve try the new IE7, but I’m not impressed. And when i’ve try to remove from my pc, i have some real problem. So…i hope that Microsoft will make this things a lot easier for the final user and more secure. I’ve read some rumors, about Microsoft buying Opera (that recently passed the Acid2 test).
And i hope to see also a new version for Mac.

March 21, 16h

How did Dean Hachamovitch demo versions 6 and 7 side by side? Or did he use screenshots?
Not being able to install multiple versions side by side without unsupported/unpredictable hacks has been one of my major gripes (right after floats, min/max-width, and fixed positioning).

Jon says:
March 21, 16h

Thanks for the comprehensive read. It’s good to hear that IE7 is bettering itself with each release… I look forward to playing around with it and testing on my own.

will says:
March 21, 21h

Thanks for the write up.

Did you get any sense of a plan for rapid deployment?

trovster says:
March 22, 02h

Nice little review Dave, nice to see an updatae to the site too.

The IE search ‘any site’ idea seems pretty good, saves you doing the appropriate Google search, which many people may not be familiar with. And the RSS handling looks interesting, especially that they’ve targeted specific websites.

RSS handling definitely needs to be improved in all browser IMO, allow the user to easily subscribe to their personal preference of aggregator (whether it be online or a desktop application). I know Firefox mention this in their version 2 roadmap, but it’s a fairly low proirity unfortunately.

bruce says:
March 22, 03h

Yes, css tables before generated content.

Dave says:
March 22, 04h

Dave, did they mention anything about deploying IE7? I just wonder is it going to be an optional free download for all, a recommended upadate when you load IE6 or kind of a more forced update through the automatic Windows Update.

setmajer says:
March 22, 05h

@Jeff: Y’know all the funky little arrows and angle quotes and stuff used as link markers? There’s one real-world problem solved by generated content. Anything needing a bullet or numbering style not supported by default could use it, really.

That said, I’m still with you, Dave and Bruce: CSS tables first, generated content after.

Josh says:
March 22, 06h

You said: ‘Floats have only ever been a hackish way to layout a web page; we need something more intelligent, something that can say “yes please, I really would like column a to be as high as column b” and have it stick.’

Uh…YES! Thanks for your honesty here, Dave. I’ve felt this way for years, but have hit many a roadblock standards zealot who thinks that floats for layout are easy and productive, when in fact they’re an incredibly hard-to-learn hack, even on browsers that support them fully.

The technology should not limit the designer. The designer should limit the technology.

March 22, 06h

How about png transparency support ?

March 22, 07h

I think generated content could have some cool uses, but I’m still not too sure about putting content into the css…

And what about PNG alpha transparency?

March 22, 07h

Thanks for the post Dave.

I had this “everything paid” invitation to MIX06, but I had to cancel it (too far away, too much work to deal with here)

If I knew it would have been that interesting and fun I might have changed my mind.

March 22, 07h

I’m with you on the CSS tables, just think about the number of sites (every?) that will get a ‘refesh’ once most people have access to browsers that can cope visually.

Cleaner, simpler layouts and less non-semantic wrapper divs = happier designers all round.

Guys - PNG Transparency is done, check out (for those that don’t know) the IE blog at

and the main write up on PNG at

Now all we need is for EVERYONE using IE/Win to download IE7 on day 1 so that we can ditch all the hacks for good. Wishful thinking :)

March 22, 07h

Thanks for that, Dave.

However, I’m intrigued to know for certain: was there specific mention of the (currently missing in IE6) pseudo-selectors for CSS in IE7, such as “span:before” and the like?

Josh Haberman says:
March 22, 08h

Totally agree about CSS tables! I haven’t actually seen the CSS tables proposal, but I hope they did it right.

It’s so silly – before CSS, web designers used tables for layout, because it’s an easy way to build multicolumn layouts. This was evil not because tables are an evil way to lay out web pages, but because people were using the “table” tag for things that are not semantically tables.

It’s like the “font” tag: it wasn’t evil because changing font size and color is inherently evil, it was evil because it mixed content and presentation.

CSS both gave and took away: it gave the ability to separate content from design, but it took away the ability to specify layouts using a table-based model. So silly!

I was ranting about this two years ago:

Dave says:
March 22, 08h

As Tim mentioned (post #2), let’s hope Microsoft does the “right” thing. I don’t use ASP.NET but there’s plenty of people who do; M$ can make money from their development and server solutions. Maybe they are starting to realize that by supporting the standards they’re starting to make everyone’s lives easier…

Even when IE7 is out, the reality is we’re still going to be “hacking” (or patching) CSS for years to come. It’s going to be slow-going for people to adopt it–there is definitely a fair amount of some folks still using IE5. IE6 isn’t *that* bad but we’re still going to be stuck with it for awhile. If IE7 is all that’s cracked up to be, M$ needs to run an agressive upgrade compaign if we ever hope to get 7 in the hands of the end users en masse.

Trey says:
March 23, 05h


What were your thoughts about the contest? As a judge did you see the problems that were encountered by the contestants? (xhtml changes, invalid code, late code additions, etc.) If is was completely your contest, what would your top 10 have been?

sam h says:
March 23, 05h

I’ve been playing aroung IE7 for a day now and i’ve been really impressed by the many noticable updates.

My favourite zen garden design still doesn’t work properly though!!

Thomas Tallyce says:
March 23, 06h

Dave, you’re aware I presume that the calendar tombstones and the comment number speech bubbles on this very site appear way off to the left in IE7?

Ian Muir says:
March 23, 07h


I’m not sure about Dave’s feelings about the contest, but I have some feedback if you’re at all interested.

I submitted 5 designs to the contest. Overall it was nice to see Microsoft running something like this, but there were som big flaws. They changed the sample HTML file a few times, and in the end it didn’t reflect the actual site. So those of us that submitted early has to sit back and watch our designs break when changes were made.

Otherwise it was good, there were a lot of designers actively involved in the contest and there was a strong sense of community being built.

I’d also be interested in hearing Dave’s thoughts about it.

Tom says:
March 23, 10h

Amen to CSS tables. I’d like them tomorrow, please.