Why Internet Explorer 8 still sucks


— 11:22 AM on August 29, 2008

I already ranted extensively about Internet Explorer 8's shortcomings when the first beta release came out in March. At the risk of being labeled an anti-Microsoft pundit (which would be a gross mischaracterization), I'll now share my thoughts on the beta 2 release that came out yesterday.

Microsoft has made great strides over these past few months. I won't argue otherwise. However, I believe the people in Redmond took many of those strides in the wrong direction. While the new browser sparkles with new features, the underlying "standards compliant" rendering engine remains buggy to a point where it almost feels like an old, pre-1.0 Mozilla milestone release.

Some claim the problem lies with sites that use IE6- and IE7-specific hacks, as those allegedly choke IE8's flawless and innocent renderer with incorrect code. That may be true in some instances, but it's just not the case with TR. I use only a handful of IE-specific workarounds, and those in no way explain why Internet Explorer 8 randomly decides to conceal parts of the left column on our front page. The bits that do and don't show up seem to change whenever I refresh the page and scroll, too. On top of that, the browser inexplicably fails to render a background color on highlighted navigation bar items. Similar problems occur on Apple.com and CNN.com, respectively, so I doubt my competence as a web designer has anything to do with it.

I can already hear keyboards clatter as some of you type up responses saying IE8 beta 2 is still just that—a beta. What ticks me off here isn't the inherent lack of polish, though, but where I'm finding it. I'll be the first to admit that the rendering engine has come a long way since the beta 1 release, since sites like Google Maps that didn't even work before now behave reasonably well. However, Microsoft has left the engine buggy enough to still mis-render many major sites, and it's apparently devoted plenty of resources to supplemental features—features like graphical RSS feeds, an instant-search bar with pictures, and a menu that suggests sites similar to what you're viewing (in case you're autistic and don't know what sites you like).

Rather than make a great rendering engine first and slowly add new browser features on top of that, the IE team seems to have spent a disproportionate amount of time and effort on new functionality. What's worse, those features add a kind of visual noise that makes IE8 feel like an incoherent mashup of buttons, menu items, and icons. If it had an automotive equivalent, it'd probably be "The Homer" from the Simpsons:

Look at Safari and Firefox, the two most popular browsers after IE. What do they have in common? Both deliver reliable browsing experiences with great rendering accuracy, great standards compliance, and a minimal amount of fluff. Apple chose to make Safari as bare-bones and straightforward as possible, while the Mozilla team left it up to third-party add-on developers to outfit Firefox with extra functionality. That means Mozilla devs can focus on the core stuff—what really matters to 99% of people—while letting third parties build onto that, and letting users pick and choose what extras they want.

If Microsoft really wants to make a good browser again, it needs to stop trying to outshine the competition with glitter and fluff, and it needs to focus all its efforts on making a browser that's faster, more reliable, and with better standards support than the rest. Once it's done that, then it can think about "changing the user's web browsing experience" or whatever PR-friendly phrase defines contextual menus filled with links to Windows Live services. Better yet, it can follow in Firefox's footsteps and stick to the essentials while making it easy for third-party developers to add things.

Internet Explorer 6 was an abomination from a security and standards-compliance point of view. Internet Explorer 7 was better, but it clearly fell short of what the competition achieved, and it continues to give web developers like me headaches. With IE8, I almost feel like the IE team is taking one step forward and two steps back. I really, sincerely hope they manage to iron out all the rendering bugs before release, because if they don't, they'll force web designers across the globe to work around flaws in not one, not two, but three buggy browsers simultaneously.

   
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