With Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), Microsoft seems to be in the difficult position of trying to please everyone.
To be officially available for download Thursday noon EDT (Eastern Daylight Time), IE8 is the software giant's attempt at complying with Web standards, but while doing so, it cannot alienate the many sites made for compatibility with earlier Internet Explorer versions.
To reach middle ground, IE8 includes a function called "Compatibility Mode" that switches over to IE7's rendering engine, when a page shows errors in its more standards-compliant mode.
Ryan Servatius, senior product manager, business strategy, Internet Explorer product management at Microsoft, said the feature can be turned on manually by users. Site developers can also specify that the browser automatically switch over, via meta tags in the pages.
"Developers want to write once for multiple browsers. That's why we embraced Web standards [and] interoperability... But we need to maintain backward compatibility," said Servatius, in an interview with ZDNet Asia.
He hopes the support for Web standards will mean more developers code in compliance with them "soon", he said.
Servatius said with more users expected to upgrade to IE8, the process may not take long. Based Microsoft's telemetry data, there have been a "significant number of people upgrading directly to IE8 from IE6", he said.
But some think it may take a period of three to five years for most sites to come around.
A user, "CypherOz", said in a forum comment: "This will start the very long process of IE-only sites doing the right thing."
Web standards to help developers
Currently, a large proportion of users are still on IE6. According to statcounter.com statistics, IE 7 has about 40 percent market share, with IE 6 at 21 percent. The closest competitor, Mozilla Firefox, stands at 25 percent.
John Brand, research director at Hydrasight, thinks developers will likely embrace IE8 mainly because of Internet Explorer's dominant market share, and also because the focus on Web standards helps developers cater to the growing number of browsers in the market.
Brand said in an interview with ZDNet Asia: "The majority of enterprise Web implementations are always going to be targeted at the dominant browser--it’s much easier for 180 million Web sites (according to Netcraft data) to target even several versions of one browser than [otherwise]."
He said developers should go for the "lowest common denominator approach" when constructing sites, which is to make sites compatible with as many browsers as possible.
Adhering to standards may also help developers code for the growing number of browser variations out there, he said. This includes new additions such as Google Chrome, as well as embedded systems such as those found in car dashboards.
Brand thinks IE8's success will come down to its availability to the masses. "We believe that as long as Microsoft is able to bundle browsers free with the operating system, and the operating system remains the dominant platform, then it is a case of how much will consumers want to avoid Microsoft browsers, rather than whether they actively choose them," said Brand.