It's been a weird couple of weeks for Internet Explorer and, as it turns out, me. On August 7, 2006, Jeff Reifman blogged about a supposed statistical analysis of Internet Explorer (IE) 6, IE 7, Firefox, and Opera in which each browser was scored for its standards compliance. According to this data set, Firefox 1.5 complies with 93 percent of the Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) 2.1 specification, compared to 93 percent for Opera 8.5, 96 percent for Opera 9, a woeful 52 percent for IE 6, and an equally problematic 54 percent for IE 7. The issue here was clear, assuming the data was correct: Despite its multi-year development, IE 7 would offer only a negligible advantage over IE 6 in a key Web technology.

Jeff also used an article I wrote, IE 7.0 Technical Changes Leave Web Developers, Users in the Lurch as further proof of IE 7's ineptitude. In that article, I wrote that IE was "a cancer" that must be stopped. "IE isn't secure and isn't standards-compliant, which makes it unworkable both for end users and Web content creators," I added. There's just one problem. Those words were penned over a year ago, and Jeff had mistaken the August tagline as being from August 2006, not August 2005.

Adding to the drama, Richard MacManus wrote about the issue in his ZDNet Blog as well, after reading a Slashdot post. By this point, IE 7's supposed standards failings were all over the Web. And I was thrown right into the middle of it. Unfortunately, I'm just about half-way through a three-week trip to France, during which I've had limited access to the Internet and what I hope is an understandable (and temporary) lack of interest in work. Last week, Gary Schare, the Director of Windows Product Management at Microsoft, sent me an urgent email explaining what was going on. But he, too, was heading off on his own vacation.

Why do these things always happen in the summer?

So I'm trying to pick up the pieces here. I had wanted to speak with Microsoft about Internet Explorer 7 after returning from France, because there are a number of issues I'd like to discuss and I'm curious about where things are going. I'll probably still do that. But for now, I'll publicly publish a few of my thoughts here so that everyone can see where I'm at with IE 7. We'll hit on this compliance issue, of course. But first, I'd like to examine what's changed since last year, the problems I have with IE 7's user interface and a key feature I can't live without in Firefox. Think of this as a kind of IE 7 potpourri.

How we got here

After my "cancer" comment a year ago, the IE team contacted me and offered to chat. The first meeting (at PDC 2005) was a bit tense--apparently, they imagined me storming Castle Redmond with a bunch of torch-bearing Firefox users eager to destroy the IE monster--and of course, I was hoping to prove to them that I was a) human and b) not a complete nut job. But it all ended well and since then, I've watched and wrote about how IE 7 has improved dramatically. I've even become friends with a guy on the IE team. I suppose you can argue, from a PR point of view, that Microsoft has pretty much gotten what they've wanted out of this relationship. But we've been in touch regularly since then, and that's good no matter what your perspective.

That quickie history aside, there are still a few things I don't like about IE. My guess is that they can't change in the IE 7 time frame. My hope is that they will change--improve, really--post IE 7. My complaints fall into two main areas: The user interface and the feature-set.

IE 7 interface gaffs

IE 7 conforms to the odd new Windows Vista (semi-) standard, in which there are Back and Forward buttons in the upper left corner of the application window and no visible menu bar by default. In a general sense, that's fine for Windows Vista. It's not fine for Windows XP, however, and the down-level version of IE 7 (which runs on Windows XP, Windows 2003, and Windows XP x64 Edition) just looks plain weird. (For comparison, check out the XP version of Windows Media Player 11, which, in my opinion, actually looks better in XP than it does in Vista.)

But IE 7's user interface fails in far more prominent ways. The layout of commonly-used buttons and other controls is illogical. While Back, Forward, and the Address Bar are all logically located, other buttons like Home, Refresh, Stop, and Print are all over the place. Compare the Firefox toolbar to that of IE 7: Firefox is logical and useable, because the buttons are exactly where you expect them. In IE 7, it's like the UI designers wore blindfolds when they designed the application.

And for once, I can even fix a problem I describe: I've drawn an admittedly poor approximation of how IE 7 should look, using the standard button layout from previous browsers (and Firefox) while also retaining the new IE 7 look and feel and general layout. Here it is:


Click for a larger version of image.

One thing I've never quite understood is why the Address Bar needs to extend across huge swaths of the browser window's width. People do two things with the Address Bar, typically. They paste in long addresses and type out short ones. Neither requires a gynormous Address Bar.

My problem with the current IE 7 control layout is that doesn't reward experience. Millions and millions of people use IE every day and the new IE 7 layout will require a lot of hunt and pecking because of the random control layout. My design would negate that while retaining all of the advantages that the current IE 7 design delivers. Just a thought.

A Firefox feature I can't live without

I've tried to use IE 7 continually, especially over the past few Vista interim releases, but I keep bumping into a few key Firefox features that I just utterly miss when they're not available. The most important is what I call inline search (not to be confused with "integrated search," which lets you search the Web via Google from a dedicated search box in the toolbar). Granted, this isn't an obvious feature, and it may confuse some casual users. But I love it. Here's how it works.

In IE, when you use the CTRL + F keyboard shortcut, a Find dialog comes up. This dialog lets you search the contents of the current page for a specific instance of text. The problem is, this dialog comes up over the text you're searching. And as is the case in other text-based applications like Notepad and Word, this dialog can often get in the way.

In Firefox, CTRL + F triggers a small Find pane in the bottom of the browser window. It doesn't cover up any of the text you're trying to search. But for keyboard mavens like myself, this little pane means you can search without moving your hands off the mouse at all. If you hit RETURN, Find cycles between all of the instances of found text in the current document. If no text is found, the Find box colors red and beeps. You can optionally highlight found text too. Bliss.

IE 7 standards compliance

OK, let's see what's up with IE 7 and CSS 2.1 compliance. As you might expect, the IE team was a bit upset about the publicity that IE 7's supposed problems were garnering last week. "I was surprised that when I got back from vacationing in Hawaii to read a Slashdot post by Jeff Reifman about an article Paul Thurrott wrote...last year," Microsoft Group Program Manager for IE Chris Wilson wrote in the IE Team Blog. "It didn't make sense; not only is this old information, but it's not even factually correct ... Paul has made several posts since last year about IE7. I'd recommend reading them ... Paul thinks we might be heading in the right direction."

Wilson writes that the statistical analysis of Web browser compliance quoted above is basically biased against IE and explains that the team has actually made great compliance strides with this release. "The one thing that really burns my personal toast is that we've been working hard to improve our standards support in IE7, and I believe it is simply wrong to think that we've only moved the needle 2 percent," he wrote. "In fact, we prioritized IE7 around 3 things--security, end user experience, and standards improvements in the platform. When I look back at the work my team has done in the platform, we have done only these things. No proprietary features added, just standards improvements."

My advice is to read the post, since I don't think I can improve on it much. Since then, Jeff updated his post to acknowledge that my article was a year old. And Richard McManus interviewed Chris Wilson about the entire episode. Wilson said he was frustrated by the Slashdot post and the fact that it was near impossible to quantify the standards improvements Microsoft has made with IE 7. "I don't think we're at 90 percent," he said. "I think we're above 50% though - and again, it really depends on how you end up weighing things. The problem is, if I gave any number I'd really want to support how I came up with that number - and I don't have a great way to do that today."

Conclusions

As I've written elsewhere--including my several IE 7 reviews (Preview, Beta 1, Beta 2 Public Preview, Beta 2, and Beta 3)--Internet Explorer 7 is a fine browser, and far more secure and useful than previous versions. Functionally, IE 7 is on par with Firefox, though as noted above, there are still a few Firefox features I miss dearly while using IE 7. From a security standpoint, we'll have to wait and see until IE 7 is out in the real world, but it's clear that the Windows Vista version of IE 7 is more secure than the XP/2003 version and that Microsoft has made significant and admirable security gains with this release.

Compliance-wise, IE 7 is an improvement, but I've leave it to experienced Web developers to decide how far its come and how much Microsoft needs to improve in the next few IE releases. And make no mistake, those releases are currently in the planning stages.

So will I be using IE 7? No, probably not: Firefox still "feels" better and it has features that are missing in IE 7. But I can't condemn IE anymore. Clearly, Microsoft cares about IE and is now updating it regularly. Clearly, they are listening to feedback, and this article is presented in that context, as feedback, as the start of a dialog. IE 7 isn't perfect, but it's not the monster IE used to be. I won't make fun of people for using it, and I won't feel stressed that it's going to compromise my system. And maybe, just maybe, I'll find myself back in IE again someday. You just never know.