File Under: Browsers, HTML5, Web Standards

Microsoft, Mozilla Battle Over What Makes a ‘Modern’ Web Browser

HTML5test.com scores for IE9 and Firefox

Microsoft and Mozilla are trading barbs over the coming Internet Explorer 9. Microsoft has been touting its HTML5 support in IE9, claiming that it renders HTML5 better than Firefox (and Chrome, Safari and Opera).

Mozilla then turned around and released an infographic that shows IE9 lagging well behind Firefox across the board — whether its HTML5 support, speed or CSS 3.

So who’s right? Well, both of them. IE9 is a huge leap forward for Microsoft. IE9 handles HTML5 and CSS 3 far better than its predecessors. As we said in our review of the release candidate IE9 is great news for web developers because it means the end of IE hacks and workarounds.

That said, IE9 offers nowhere near the level of HTML5 support found its competitors.

But what about Microsoft’s much-touted HTML5 compliance chart? Well, the tests used for that chart are the tests Microsoft developed for IE9 and submitted to the W3C. It should be no surprise that IE9 scores well in the tests it created, after all, those are the tests it was developed against.

IE9 does well on its own HTML5 tests

For something a bit less biased, grab a copy of the IE9 release candidate and point it any of the popular HTML5 test suites on the web — caniuse.com and HTML5tests.com are two good examples. Run IE9 RC1 and Firefox 4 through those tests and you’ll find that Firefox handy beats IE9 (as do Chrome, Opera and Safari). In fact, Firefox 3.5, which is over two years old, also handily beats IE9.

So how can Microsoft claim that IE9 is a “modern” browser with amazing HTML5 support? Well, Microsoft’s argument is that HTML5test and its ilk look for features that haven’t necessarily been finalized by the W3C. Microsoft’s rebuttal to Mozilla’s criticisms is that users don’t want experimental features, they want a fast browser that can handle HTML5 video, audio and canvas.

Microsoft’s Tim Sneath, director of Windows and Silverlight technical evangelism, says that “modern browsers implement features when they are ready, providing predictable patterns that developers can rely on rather than suddenly breaking or removing specifications.”

The problem with that claim is that, as we’ve often pointed out, the web doesn’t move at the speed of standards, it moves at the speed of innovative web browsers and developers. Sometimes there are hiccups along the way, but in taking the conservative track, IE9 is in danger of falling behind the web before it even makes it onto the web.

Internet Explorer’s market share has been in steady decline for several years now. IE has dropped from 68.5 percent world market share in July 2008 to 46 percent today (according to StatCounter).

Faced with dwindling market share and IE bashing in the web development community, many developers were hoping Microsoft would innovate, would build something amazingly far ahead of the competition. But that’s not the approach Microsoft has decided to pursue.

So while IE9 does an admirable job of catching up on web standards, it’s far from a leader when it comes to HTML5 and CSS 3 support. If you want a browser that works on today’s web, IE9 will make a fine choice. If you want a browser that’s already moving toward the web of the future then you might want to look elsewhere.

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