Viva

My trip to MIX08 was also my first visit to Las Vegas. I’m sure I’m not the first place to make this observation but may I just say: what an odd place!

I experienced first-hand what Dan was talking about in his presentation Learning Interaction Design from Las Vegas. In getting from A to B, for any value of A and any value of B, all routes lead through the casino floor; the smoky, smoky casino floor. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had to hunt down an Apple Store to try to deal with my broken Macbook—more on that later—I wouldn’t have stepped outside the hotel/conference venue for the duration of my stay. Also, from the perspective of only seeing The Strip, visiting Las Vegas was like Children of Men or a bizarro version of Logan’s Run.

But enough on the locale, what about the event? Well, it was certainly quite different to South by Southwest. Southby is full of geeks, MIX was full of nerds. Now I understand the difference.

I was there to hear about Internet Explorer 8. Sure enough, right after some introductory remarks from Ray Ozzie, the keynote presentation included a slot for Dean Hachamovitch to showcase new features and announce the first beta release. I then had to endure three hours of Silverlight demos but I was fortunate enough to be sitting next to PPK so I spent most of the time leaning over his laptop while he put the beta through its paces.

After the keynote, Chris Wilson gave a talk wherein he ran through all the new features. It goes without saying that the most important “feature” is that the version targeting default behaviour is now fixed: IE8 will behave as IE8 by default. I am, of course, ecstatic about this and I conveyed my happiness to Chris and anyone else who would listen.

IE8 is aiming for full CSS2.1 support. Don’t expect any CSS3 treats: Chris said that the philosophy behind choosing which standards to support was to go for the standards that are finished. That makes a lot of sense. But then this attitude is somewhat contradicted by the inclusion of some HTML5 features. Not that I’m complaining: URL hash updates (for bookmarking) and offline storage are very welcome additions for anyone doing any Ajax work.

Overall IE8 is still going to be a laggard compared to Firefox, Safari and Opera when it comes to standards but I’m very encouraged by the attitude that the team are taking. Web standards are the star by which they will steer their course. That’s good for everyone. And please remember, the version available now is very much a beta release so don’t get too discouraged by any initial breakage.

I’m less happy about the closed nature of the development process at Microsoft. Despite Molly’s superheroic efforts in encouraging more transparency, there were a number of announcements that I wish hadn’t been surprises. Anne Van Kesteren outlines some issues, most of them related to Microsoft’s continued insistence on ignoring existing work in favour of reinventing the wheel. The new XDomainRequest Object is the most egregious example of ignoring existing community efforts. Anne also some issues with IE’s implementation of ARIA but for me personally, that’s outweighed by the sheer joy of seeing ARIA supported at all: a very, very welcome development that creates a solid baseline of support (you can start taking bets now on how long it will take to make it into a nightly build of WebKit, the last bulwark).

The new WebSlices technology is based heavily on hAtom. Fair play to Microsoft: not once do they refer to their “hSlice” set of class names as a microformat. It’s clear that they’ve been paying close attention to the microformats community, right down to the licensing: I never thought I’d hear a Microsoft keynote in which technology was released under a Creative Commons Public Domain license. Seeing as they are well aware of microformats, I asked Chris why they didn’t include native support for hCard and hCalendar. This would be a chance for Internet Explorer to actually leapfrog Firefox. Instead of copying (see the Firebug clone they’ve built for debugging), here was an opportunity to take advantage of the fact that Mozilla have dropped the ball: they promised native support for microformats in Firefox 3 but they are now reneging on that promise. Chris’s response was that the user experience would be too inconsistent. Using the tried and tested “my mom” test, Chris explained that his mom would wonder why only some events and contact details were exportable but not others. But surely that also applies to WebSlices? The number of WebSlices on the Web right now is close to zero. Microsoft are hoping to increase that number by building in a WebSlice parser into their browser; if they had taken the same attitude with hCard and hCalendar, they themselves could have helped break the chicken’n’egg cycle by encouraging more microformat deployment through native browser support.

Overall though, I’m very happy with the direction that Internet Explorer is taking even if, like John, I have some implementation quibbles.

Having experienced a big Microsoft event first-hand, I still don’t know whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about the company. I get the impression that there are really two Microsofts. There’s Ray Ozzie’s Microsoft. He’s a geek. He gets developers. He understands technology and users. Then there’s Steve Ballmer’s Microsoft. He’s an old-school businessman in the mold of Scrooge McDuck. If Ray Ozzie is calling the shots, then there is reason to be hopeful for the future. If the buck stops with Steve Ballmer however, Microsoft is f**ked.

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