Microsoft's IE 8 Compatibility List: Is it working?

Internet Explorer 8 (IE 8) is nearing the finish line, with a March release to manufacturing looking like a distinct possibility. But is IE 8 -- or, more accurately -- Web site developers and owners -- really ready? One thing that hasn't changed much over the past several months is the fact that many Web sites still aren't compatible with IE 8.

Internet Explorer 8 (IE 8) is nearing the finish line, with a March release to manufacturing looking like a distinct possibility. But is IE 8 -- or, more accurately -- Web site developers and owners -- really ready?

I have been testing IE 8 since the code became available publicly. And one thing that hasn't changed much over the past several months is the fact that many Web sites still aren't compatible with IE 8.

I'm not blaming the site owners here. Microsoft officials have known all along that even though the IE team is doing the "right" thing by finally making IE more standards-compliant, they are risking "breaking the Web" because the vast majority of Web sites still are written to work correctly with previous, non-standards-compliant versions of IE.

Microsoft has tried to mitigate the effects of moving to a default standards-based view in a few ways. IE 8 comes with a "Compatibility View" button that will "fix" a seemingly broken site if a user knows to press it. Microsoft went a step beyond this with IE 8 Release Candidate 1, issued in January, by adding a downloadable list of sites that would automatically trigger IE 8 to move directly to compatibility mode, rather than standards mode.

(Here is the list of the 2,400 sites that are on Version 1.0 of Microsoft's Compatibility View list.)

The Compatibility View list includes some major sites -- Apple.com, CNN.com, eBay, Facebook, Google.com, NYTimes.com -- even Microsoft.com (!) -- and lots, lots more. Users also have the option of adding IE-8-incompatible sites they visit that didn't make it onto the list that will be appended to the schema list they download.

The Compatibility List has made my IE 8 browsing a lot more stable. When I go to the NYTimes.com site now, it just works. The Compatibility View button (the icon for which looks like a broken Web page and is typically located directly to the right of the URL address bar) doesn't appear at all (as is the case for all sites on the Compatibility List).

That said, there are a lot of sites I visit that aren't on the list. And more often than not, they fail to render correctly with IE 8. Sometimes I remember that I should try hitting the Compatibility View button to see if there are boxes and buttons and text there that I can't see because I am using IE 8. Other times, when I am visiting a site with which I'm unfamiliar, I don't realize what I'm missing.

I'm at the point now -- if a site looks weird, is slow or just doesn't seem to be working right -- I simply assume it is IE 8's fault. Sometimes I'm right (as I discover when I open the same site in Firefox or Chrome and it looks and works fine). Other times, I'm not -- a site just might be down or broken. The bottom line is I've come to expect a rocky browsing experience when using IE 8.

I doubt the compatibility experience is going to change much, if at all, between now and the time IE 8 is released. For months, Microsoft has been banging the drum for site owners to update their code -- either by adding compatibility tags or redoing sites to take into account the changes in IE 8. Many site admins and developers have said they weren't willing to take on that task until Microsoft delivered a near-final test release -- at least a Release Candidate.

Some critics have said they think Microsoft is doing a disservice to developers by offering compatibility work-arounds. They say Microsoft created its own problems by delivering previous IE releases that flouted standards -- which is true. And now Microsoft should bite the bullet and just go the 100-percent-standards route, they reason. That might be a better course in the long run for Web developers tired of having to do separate versions of sites and apps for standards-based browsers and for IE, but it punishes Web users in the interim.

What's going to happen when IE 8 goes final and non-techie users have it pushed to them or get new PCs with IE 8 preloaded? I wouldn't be surprised to see further losses in IE market share, as frustrated users find only some of their favorite Web sites displaying correctly but don't really understand why. Perhaps Opera and its chums won't need the antitrust courts to get a leg up on Microsoft, after all....

What's your take? Is Microsoft taking the right course with Compatibility Mode in IE 8?