Microsoft IE9 moves the baseline: Allsopp

Veteran Australian web developer John Allsopp believes that Internet Explorer is a web baseline and one which is being pushed further by Internet Explorer 9.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor

Veteran Australian web developer John Allsopp believes that Internet Explorer is a web baseline and is being pushed further by Internet Explorer 9.

"If you cast your mind back to the early 1990s, the web was a very simple thing," the developer said yesterday at the Australian launch of the browser. He kicked off his speech by reminiscing about "basic protocols and browsers", like the original Netscape Navigator that eventually grew to become the complex and interlocking software ecosystems we enjoy today.

"And yet, for some reason, it took off enormously."

Allsopp has been following the web on its developmental journey for the entire period of its existence. The developer is probably best known for the Web Directions conference he helped found in 2004 — which from its Australian roots has grown into a global series of events spanning Sydney, the United States, Asia and London. Each year in Sydney, the Web Directions South event brings scores of the nation's most talented web developers together, acting as a hub for other mini-conference spokes to revolve around.

But Allsop has been engaged in a number of other initiatives. His company Western Civilisation focuses on software development and is particularly known for its CSS development software Style Master. He has also developed numerous other tools.

Then there's Scroll Magazine, a print and online journal for web professionals, as well as a number of books on coding and training courses on web development; Allsopp's resume is long. He even claims to have been a surf lifesaver at Bondi Beach, and asserts the title of being the first to coin the phrase "Web 2.0".

According to the developer, the history of the web has to be understood in terms of the standards wars that have plagued it.

In the mid 1990s, he claimed, browser manufacturers like Netscape and Microsoft realised that they could simply implement new features into their software and web developers would start using them — despite a lack of commonality between rival browsers. Allsopp said this led to improvements in the quality of what the web was capable of delivering, such as JavaScript, which fuels many of our modern web applications, but it also led to fragmentation.

"You needed the latest version of Internet Explorer to do this, and Netscape to do that, and as a developer it was incredibly frustrating," said Allsopp. "We got to this point in the mid to late 1990s where it was an absolute disaster from a developer perspective." The developer asked his audience to imagine what it was like trying to explain to their mother "why you had to get a particular browser to get to a particular site".

The resolution of the browser wars, according to the developer, was the establishment of the World Wide Web Consortium, which became "the United Nations of the web". After web standards started being established — a process he was involved with — browser manufacturers started competing within a standard-based framework, setting a baseline platform for developers to target.

In this context, Allsopp believed the release of Internet Explorer 6 in 2001 was a "milestone" event, coming as it did with rich CSS and JavaScript support, as well as integration with Windows. "It was the first modern browser that your mum and dad used," he said, "and that your IT people would actually let you install on your computer."

Since that time, a wave of other browsers have arrived or dramatically matured — the Mozilla Firefox family, Apple's Safari, the Opera browser and so on. And, of course, IE has improved drastically, adding a slew of features in versions 7 and 8.

However, even today, Allsopp believes much of the web operates still as it was in 2001: users still go to distinct websites and click on links. This could be one reason why IE6 remains an extremely popular browser on corporate desktops despite Microsoft's increasingly proactive efforts to kill it off.

The developer believes that this will gradually change with the release of IE9, which he said will push that baseline ahead.

IE9 has just been updated with a bunch of new features especially focused around version 5 of the HTML standard and version 3 of CSS, but also hardware acceleration, faster JavaScript and an improved user interface similar to that of Google's Chrome browser.

It's these sorts of features that Allsopp believes are increasingly allowing developers to build their software projects online. He described the next generation of the net as "a web of applications".

"Traditional developers still develop applications, but [they are] increasingly developing them in the browser," he said.

Other browsers such as Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera are also helping this trend to arrive, and in many ways are ahead of IE. But Allsopp said IE's status as the lowest common denominator will spur change.

"Like it or not, the baseline of the web is Internet Explorer: it's what millions of IT departments install on computers around the world," he said. "It's still a majority of users by a country mile. It's the common denominator. The argument clients often have, if you're a developer, or bosses have, is, 'will it work in IE?' It's our baseline, we don't go beyond that."

Allsopp's vision of the future of web development is one in which developers will stop focusing on traditional platforms such as desktops and laptops, although he noted that they will still be used, and start developing for the multitude of "screens" — tablets such as the iPad, smartphones and even screens built into the back of aeroplane seats — which are proliferating everywhere.

"We're seeing screens all over the place, and we're seeing the web on all of those screens," he said. "And let's face it, screens are getting so cheap, they're going to be on everything, whether they should be or not. If you think about the challenge as a company developing for this, let's imagine you want to reach all these screens, do you want a SDK, a toolkit, for all these hundreds of screens? Or do you want a single, unified technology, which allows you to reach out and put applications on all of these different screens?"

"And that's the vision of the web. And I think it's a reality. And I think what we're seeing with this particular release today, is that's become the benchmark."

Allsopp is banking on his vision being right. Over the next few months he will run an event in Microsoft's home town of Seattle, focusing on HTML5 and how it will enable the next generation of the web. But it's more than the business opportunity that incentivises the developer. It's the possibilities of this continually emerging medium.

"I'm 44 years old, I've got three kids under five, should be settling down, but am excited as when I started computer science at Sydney Uni," he said this morning. And that's a good place to be.

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