Remember the bad old days of the Internet, when it wasn’t a given that one primary objective of any Web site should be to work equally well in any modern browser? Some sites slapped “Best Viewed With Internet Explorer” or “Best Viewed With Netscape Navigator” logos (or both of them) onto their home pages, like perverse badges of honor. It was like turning onto a highway and discovering signs saying it was best driven in a Buick or a Kia.
Eventually there were sites that would only operate properly in IE, most often because they used Microsoft’s IE-only ActiveX. (I have the horrible feeling that such sites are still out there, although the last one I encountered myself belonged to a financial institution which I stopped doing business with in 2009.)
On the modern, mainstream Web, the concept of “Best Viewed With” has become nearly extinct. That’s in part because contemporary browsers have supported major Web standards in at least acceptable fashion, and in part because site proprietors realized that it was a lousy idea to build sites that welcomed in users of some browsers while shutting others out.
Today, however, I’ve been getting a queasy feeling of deja vu as I explore a bunch of Web sites that display messages such as this:
The sites in question are all linked to from a Microsoft site called Beauty of the Web. As part of its Internet Explorer 9 beta launch, Microsoft partnered with several dozen other companies–from LinkedIn to BMW CNN to a bunch of small-but-inventive outfits I’d never heard of–to create Web experiences that show off IE9′s new capabilities. The partners demonstrated their work at Microsoft’s IE9 launch event in San Francisco yesterday, and the Beauty of the Web site lets anyone check them out.
The warning above (which is on BMW’s Joy Defines the Future) is typical, and it’s accurate. All these sites look great in IE9. On other browsers, however, you take your chances. An elegant site called Lost World Fairs, designed in part to play with a typographical technology called Web Open File Format (WOFF), is equally neat in IE9, Safari, Firefox, and Chrome. (Just for yucks, I tried it on an iPad, too; it didn’t display as intended there.) But the aforementioned BMW site is unbearably slow on Safari and Chrome, and I can’t get it to run at all on a Firefox. It’s essentially an “Only Viewable in Internet Explorer” site.
I don’t mean to suggest that Microsoft is up to anything nefarious here. It’s not devising proprietary technologies which box Web sites and Web users into dependence on IE; it’s just jumping on the open HTML5 standards bandwagon with all the energy it can muster. All the other browser companies are aboard, too. But HTML5 is still a work in progress–various aspects of it are supported to greater or lesser degrees by different browsers, or in inconsistent fashion. At the moment, no thorough exhibition of HTML5 technologies is going to work the same on every browser.
(Side note: Apple’s HTML5 showcase looks smashing in Safari and is viewable in Chrome and Firefox, too. But when I try it out in IE9, it’s not that I get a bad experience–I get no experience at all:
Maybe Apple has been blocking all versions of Internet Explorer on the assumption–valid until yesterday–that Microsoft browsers don’t do next-generation Web stuff at all. If so, I hope it lets IE9 users in; I’m curious to see how well the new IE would handle Apple’s demos.)
Beyond HTML5, Microsoft’s other big bet with IE9 is hardware acceleration: rendering technologies which take full advantage of a PC’s graphical horsepower. There’s some controversy over Microsoft’s claims about IE9′s acceleration features, but I don’t think anyone who’s tried the beta would contend that they’re unimpressive. The company’s own demos let Web sites do turbocharged animation in IE9, and the ones I’ve tried work quite well in Firefox 4. But in a browser without hardware acceleration, such as Chrome, running these demos can instantly transform your PC into something that feels like a Pentium III with 128MB of RAM–even if it’s really a potent modern computer.
At the moment, I think it would be silly for any site to build anything very important that was only tolerable in an accelerated Web browser. But my hunch is that we won’t have to wait long until every big browser sports decent acceleration: Google says that it’s only weeks away from delivering it for Chrome.
One other note: A few new features in IE9 seen in the Beauty of the Web sites are based on Microsoft-specific concepts, such as Windows 7 Jump Lists. These aren’t a serious affront to the concept of an open and compatible Web, because they’re pleasant minor conveniences at best; their absence in browsers other than IE isn’t going to cripple anyone’s experience.
Ultimately, I’m not too alarmed over these new Best-Viewed-in-IE9 sites, for three reasons:
1) Even though these sites are from third-party companies, they’re still closer to demos of the IE9 beta than they are to real commercial Web content; as far as I know, no major company is planning to dump its current site for one tailored to Microsoft’s browser;
2) Until HTML5 is fully baked, there’s going to be at least some cool stuff that isn’t equally cool in all browsers;
3) There’s surely some healthy competitive tension going on here. If there are sites based on next-generation technologies that look best in IE9, it gives every other browser company a huge incentive to eradicate any IE9 advantage as quickly as possible, by offering HTML5 and hardware acceleration that’s at least as good as Microsoft’s.
But if I’m giving these sites a pass, it’s a temporary one. BMW, it’s fine for you to help Microsoft demonstrate its new software–but you don’t really intend to build a BMW.com that tells visitors what browser they should be running, do you?