Distorted Websites

June 1, 2009
With the release of Internet Explorer 8, expect some wonky websites.

Electrical distributors vexed by the relentless need to continually tweak their websites for viewing with multiple browsers have a new challenge: the 2009 release of Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 is expected to wreak havoc on some websites.

Apparently, I.E. 8's roll-out, which began in mid-March, “may cause content written for previous versions of Internet Explorer to display differently than intended,” according Nick MacKechnie, a senior technical account manager for Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.

The impending disruption probably would have been even worse in the heyday of Internet Explorer, when the browser was pretty much the only game in town. But even without complete market dominance, the change-over is expected to have a major impact. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of all PCs still use Internet Explorer as their primary browser as of December, 2008, according to a study by market watcher Net Applications (NA) (www.netapplications.com).

While rival browsers are gaining steadily, they're still far back in the pack. Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft's primary challenger, still only has a 21 percent market share, according to NA's study. And the Apple Safari browser clocks in at just under 8 percent. Meanwhile, Google's much-touted Chrome browser, released last year, barely makes a blip with just a one percent share of the market.

“With Internet Explorer 8, we are delivering a browser that gets people to the information they need, fast and provides protection that no other browser can match,” says Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO.

The anticipated problems with I.E. 8 are the result of a fundamental shift at Microsoft. The company has decided to adhere to international web design standards set by the web design community at large with the latest version of I.E. That's a major break from its previous stance, which was trying to bully designers into accepting I.E. as the de facto global standard.

Over the long term, Microsoft's change of heart is expected to reap real savings for companies and make life much easier for web designers. Coders will be able to spend more time designing, and less time making special tweaks for I.E. idiosyncrasies. Standards-compliant sites are expected to take less revenue to produce, to download quicker and be easier to optimize for the search engines.

Still, getting from here to there may be a tad painful.

“What's going to happen is that a lot of sites coded for I.E. will not work in I.E. 8,” says Jeffrey Zeldman, author of Designing With Web Standards, second edition, and a globally recognized standards guru. “Not only will layouts look wonky; scripting will also change.”

In plain language, that means all those request-for-quote forms you may use on your site could stop working. Website user forums and feedback forms may also cause some trouble. And much of the rich media you may be using in the design could simply stop working.

Zeldman puts it bluntly: “If you write I.E.-only scripts, your site will break.”

Electrical distributors that regularly use applications requiring access via a web portal could also be in for headaches. The sites providing those web-based applications could also stop working properly, and could take weeks or months to fix if the service providers decide to play catch up rather than being proactive about the I.E. 8 roll-out.

The take-away? Unearthing how bad the carnage will be at your own site will hinge on your webmaster's design philosophy. Sites based primarily on web standards and only tweaked for the previous versions of I.E may only face extremely minor problems, if any at all. But sites specifically designed to work in previous versions of I.E., with no regard to web standards whatsoever, could face major snafus.

Fortunately, Microsoft does have a short-term, quick fix for the afflicted. “We have provided a meta-tag usable on a per-page or per-site level to maintain backwards compatibility with Internet Explorer 7,” MacKechnie says. “Adding this tag instructs Internet Explorer 8 to render content like it did in Internet Explorer 7, without requiring any additional changes.”

If your website forms are primarily used by your own sales force and other in-house users, you can delay the trouble a bit. Firms that would rather not deal with a dead-of-the-night automatic update to I.E. 8 on their PCs can stop that change in its tracks with Microsoft's Internet Explorer Blocker Toolkit (www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyID=21687628-5806-4ba6-9e4e-8e224ec6dd8c&displaylang=en).

Once protected, all PCs using the blocker above will remain on I.E. 7 until the organization decides to upgrade. The best bet may be to install the blocker ASAP. As many of us have learned the hard way, once installed, Microsoft's automatic updates are often tough to reverse, and in some cases, irreversible. This doesn't solve the problem for outside users — such as your customers — who upgrade to I.E. 8, however.

Over the long term, the solution to the release I.E. 8 will be for every electrical distributor to design and maintain their sites based on the standards created by the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C — the globally recognized Web standards body, according to Zeldman.

Many industry sites are already W3C compliant, and most likely will not be among the distorted as I.E. 8 rolls out. For example, the website for Midwest Electrical Trade Show (hwww.metsshow.com) is badged as W3C compliant, as is the Public Utility Research Center at the University of Florida (http://www.cba.ufl.edu/purc/research/energy.asp), and the North Dakota Public Service Commission (http://www.psc.state.nd.us/jurisdiction/electricity-consinfo.html).

The W3C offers two free online tools that validate web standards compliance, one for the site's hypertext (HTML) (http://validator.w3.org/), and another for its style-sheets (CSS) (http://jigsaw.w3.org/css- validator/).

Zeldman has also released his own Web Standards Advisor validator, designed to work with Dreamweaver, one of the more popular website authoring tools. “The Web Standards Advisor is great for the designer who is climbing aboard the web standards design train,” Zeldman says. “But it's also surprisingly useful for the advanced coder. I found mistakes in my own web site with the tool,” he adds.

Additional help is also being offered by Microsoft, which has released a cornucopia of online tools created to help companies understand, adapt to and monitor I.E. 8's coming roll-out. Those include:

Electrical distributors who get ahead of the curve and modify their sites to be standards-compliant will have the advantage of seeing their sites rendered properly, not only in I.E. 8, but in any standards-compliant web browser their customers may choose to use.

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan. Voice: (646) 233-4089. Email: [email protected]. Web: www.joedysart.com.