State and local governments vexed by the relentless need to continually design their Web sites for multiple browsers have a new challenge: the recent release of Internet Explorer (IE) 8, which is expected to cause even more problems.
Apparently IE's rollout "may cause content written for previous versions of Internet Explorer to display differently than intended," according Nick MacKechnie, a senior technical account manager for Microsoft.
Granted, the impending havoc, which began in May with IE 8's official release, probably would've been even worse in the heyday of IE, when the browser was pretty much the only game in town.
But even without complete market dominance, the changeover is expected to have a major impact. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of all PCs still use IE as of December 2008, according to a study by market watcher Net Applications.
And while rival browsers are gaining steadily, they're still very far back in the pack. Firefox, Microsoft's primary challenger, still only has a 21 percent market share, according to the study. And Mac's Safari browser clocks in at less than 8 percent. Meanwhile, Google's much-touted Chrome browser barely makes a blip, with just 1 percent of the market share.
As with many upgrades instituted by Microsoft, most governments may not be able to "defend" against this latest version of IE because the new browser is being distributed by Microsoft as an automatic update. Essentially one day you'll have IE 7 on your machine, and the next morning you may walk in to find the new IE 8 interface staring back at you - like it or not.
Ironically the anticipated problems with IE 8 are the result of fundamental shift at Microsoft: a decision, for the first time, to adhere to Web design standards set by the Web design community at large, rather than a stance of trying to force designers to accept IE as the de facto global standard.
Long term, the about-face is expected to reap real savings for Web designers and governments. Coders will be able to spend more time designing and less time tweaking for IE idiosyncrasies. And more governments will be relying on standard-compliant sites that take less revenue to produce, download faster and are better optimized for search engines.
Still, getting from here to there will be a bit painful.
"What's going to happen is that a lot of sites coded for IE will not work in IE 8," said Jeffrey Zeldman, author of Designing With Web Standards, second edition, and a globally recognized standards guru. "Not only will layouts look wonky, scripting will also change."
In common parlance, that problem with scripting means all those request-for-quote forms used by government agencies could stop working. Government forums and feedback forms also may cause some trouble. And much of the rich media that many of today's Web sites rely on may simply stop working.
"If you write IE-only scripts, your site will break," added a blunt Zeldman.
Governments that regularly use Web-based software could also be in for added headaches. These sites could also stop working properly and could take weeks or months to fix by the service providers that decide to play catch-up - rather than be proactive - to IE's 8 rollout.
The takeaway? Unearthing how bad the carnage will be at your own government site will hinge on your webmaster's design philosophy.
Sites based primarily on Web standards and only tweaked for IE 7 may only face minor problems. Sites specifically designed to work in previous versions of IE, with no regard to Web standards whatsoever, could face major snafus.
The official portal for North Dakota state government, www.ND.gov, for example, is sitting pretty. It's home page is emblazoned at the bottom with a number of badges indicating that the Web site complies with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) - the globally recognized Web standards body - and consequently will suffer little from the changeover. Connecticut's Web site displays a similar W3C badge. And the Santa Rosa, Calif. site professes a desire to conform to those same standards.
For government sites that aren't so lucky, Microsoft has a short-term, quick fix. "We have provided a metatag usable on a per-page or per-site level to maintain backward compatibility with Internet Explorer 7," MacKechnie said. "Adding this tag instructs Internet Explorer 8 to render content like it did in Internet Explorer 7, without requiring any additional changes."
Plus, governments that would rather not deal with an automatic update in the dead of night to a fleet of PCs can stop that change in its tracks with Microsoft's Internet Explorer Blocker Toolkit.
Once protected, all PCs with the blocker will remain on IE 7 until the IT department decides the government is ready to upgrade. As many of us have learned the hard way, once installed, Microsoft's automatic updates are often tough or even impossible to reverse.
The long-term solution to the release of IE 8 will be for every government to design and maintain sites based on standards created by the W3C, Zeldman said.
Zeldman also has released his own Web Standards Advisor validator, which is designed to work with Dreamweaver, one of the more popular Web authoring tools. "The Web Standards Advisor is great for the designer who is climbing aboard the Web standards design train," Zeldman said, "but it's also surprisingly useful for the advanced coder. I found mistakes in my own Web site [with the tool]."
With the move to fully adopt Web standards, Microsoft is finally falling in line with all the other major Web browsers, including Firefox and Opera, the Safari and Camino browsers for the Mac, and the new Chrome browser from Google, which have long endorsed Web standards.
There's a reason all those browsers adhere to W3C standards, Zeldman said. Sites based on standards generally download significantly faster than other sites, resulting in "real bandwidth cost savings" for the companies hosting those sites, he said.
Plus standards-compliant sites are also "read" more easily in search engines, and consequently rank higher on search engine returns. "Having W3C-compliant code can make all the difference," said Michael Fleischner, founder of Marketing Scoop, a search engine optimization firm.
Sites designed in harmony with the W3C today also will continue to work in years to come, even though today's browsers will inevitably evolve over time. "Open standards make this possible," Zeldman said.
And content designed for a standards-compliant site can be repurposed much more easily and inexpensively. For example, governments can migrate content from their primary site to a newly created, mobile-phone friendly site much more
easily and inexpensively if the original site embraces W3C standards, Zeldman said.
Of course, even the most standards-compliant site is not beyond reproach. Jason Correia, marketing director of DreamCo Design, said his company is sometimes forced to stray beyond acceptable Web standards to make a design work. "Making it appear correctly at times clashes with W3C standards, but the way a Web site appears is more important than someone's suggested opinion."
Moreover, even with standards, some aspects of Web display are beyond the Web designers' control. The screen settings on a particular PC, for example, can undo months of site planning and development, at least from a graphic display standpoint. For example, sites set to display in 1024x768 screen resolution can appear different on a screen optimized for an older 800x600 screen resolution setting, Correia said.
Even so, on balance, the W3C standards are the way to go, experts insist.
"The old-school techniques had their place when some standards had yet to be written and others were poorly supported in mainstream browsers," Zeldman said. "But that day is gone. Before IE 8, designers and developers could keep their heads in the sand if they wanted to. With IE 8, 'head in the sand' equals 'dead on arrival.'"