Microsoft faces a web-standards Acid test

Opera CTO Håkon Wium Lie asks how seriously Microsoft's IE8 browser will support an upcoming web-standards test

Acid2, a complex web-browser test page that shows a smiley face when rendered correctly, was announced two years ago on ZDNet.co.uk's sister site, CNET News.com.

Published by the Web Standards Project, the test has been a tremendous success in weeding out browser bugs that stop web designers from reaching pixel perfection in their pages. Safari and Opera ship Acid2-compliant versions, and the upcoming Firefox 3 will also pass the test.

Recently, Microsoft announced that Internet Explorer version 8 can render Acid2, and it showed a screenshot to back the claim. The news was received with joy and excitement in the web-authoring community.

Finally, it seems, Microsoft has decided to take web standards seriously. Designers will no longer have to spend countless hours trying to get their pages to look right in Internet Explorer while adhering to standards.

Unfortunately, I think that the celebration is premature. I predict IE8 will not pass Acid2, after all.

But first, a few words about the next Acid test, soon to be published by the Web Standards Project: Acid3.

Acid3 will follow in the footsteps of Acid1 and Acid2; it's a tough one-page test that displays a quirky graphic when rendered correctly. No browser will pass the test at the time of its release. All vendors are equally challenged.

Whereas Acid2 was a static web page, Acid3 will be a dynamic web application. When browsers are improved to pass Acid3, it will become easier to write web applications that are interoperable across browsers.

Acid3 is written for and by the web community. Ian Hickson is the editor of the test. While he has a unique ability to write test cases that expose bugs in all browsers, he has also asked for help from others. Code contributions are welcome.

Acid2 and Acid3 both state that they should be tested using the default settings of the browser. Web-usability consultant Jakob Nielsen has discussed the power of defaults for search results. It applies to many other areas as well.

People are more likely to use the default browser than an alternate browser. They are more likely to save a document in the default format than in an optional format. And they are more likely to display web documents using the browsers' default settings than to change the settings.

This brings me back to Microsoft and my prediction that IE8 will not pass Acid2. I suspect that IE8 will, at best, support standards in a circuitous way — they will exert the power of default.

What will happen when you type http://webstandards.org/acid2 in your freshly installed IE8? Will Acid2 be displayed correctly when you hit the test button?

Microsoft has been asked that question, but it has not given an answer. I think the company is considering three possible scenarios.

One scenario could be that IE8 will require users or authors to "opt in" to support standards. For example, in order to render Acid2 correctly, users could be required to modify IE8's default settings. This breaks with the guidelines of the test, and IE8 will therefore not pass in this scenario.

A second scenario could be that Microsoft requires web pages to change the default settings by flagging that they really want to be rendered correctly. Web pages already have a way to say this (called "doctype switching", which is supported by all browsers), but Microsoft has all but announced that IE8 will support yet another scheme.

If it decides to implement the new scheme, the Acid2 test — and all the other pages that use doctype switching — will not be rendered correctly.

A third scenario could be to hard-code the web address of Acid2 into IE8. This way, the page is given special treatment to make it look like the browser is passing the test. It should be obvious that this breaks the spirit of the test and doesn't warrant a passing grade.

I predict that Microsoft will implement at least one of these scenarios to limit the impact of standards. This would be damaging for the web, so I hope my prediction is completely and absolutely wrong. The IE8 team has shown it can render Acid2 correctly. Now it's time for Microsoft to put its code to good use.

Håkon Wium Lie is chief technology officer of Opera Software. Before joining Opera in 1999, he worked at W3C where he was responsible for the development of Cascading Style Sheets, a concept he proposed while working with Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1994.

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