September 30, 2004 4:00 AM PDT
IE gaps that need to be plugged
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With no major upgrade in three years, apart from last month's XP Service Pack 2 security release, IE is showing its age. Despite this, Microsoft's browser software remains the industry standard, with 95 percent of the market, even though small competitors like the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox, Apple Computer's Safari and Opera Software's browser have apparently made inroads.
Microsoft has steadfastly refused to issue another standalone browser and has reserved the recent security upgrade to IE for people with the Windows XP operating system--about half the 390 million users of Windows worldwide, according to research firm IDC.
But if Microsoft could be persuaded to update IE, what features would Web developers and surfers like to see?
Perhaps first on Web surfers' list is tabbed browsing. This feature, offered since the earliest versions of Opera in 1996 and subsequently by Mozilla-based browsers and Safari, lets the user open multiple Web pages within the same browser window. Fans of tabbed browsing say it reduces clutter and helps organize pages gleaned from search results.
Microsoft acknowledges the appeal of tabbed browsing.
"Once you start doing tabs, you never go back to a browser without tabs," said Gary Schare, director of security product management for Windows. "But like anything else, it's a matter of resourcing and prioritizing what we work on."
Another feature high on many Web surfers' wish list is live bookmarks, such as those available in Firefox, which display dynamically updated content from RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds along with the browser's bookmarks (or, in IE parlance, "Favorites").
If you want to get Web developers riled up, ask them about IE's support for CSS (cascading style sheets) and the PNG image format.
"It has been *seven years* since 'native PNG' support was announced for IE 4.0," wrote a respondent to a hotly discussed Microsoft Web log on the subject. "While I am pleased that development on IE will continue, and I'm hopeful that the issues I have with it will be addressed, I'm not holding my breath. Microsoft has squandered much of the public support and trust it once had, and it will take a lot more than vaporous quasi-announcements to win that back. The vague pronouncements released so far have been meaningless, except in a touchy-feely PR sort of way. There has been zero commitment, after making us wait many years," the respondent wrote.
Microsoft acknowledges the hue and cry over standards support but insists that it's acting prudently in holding back full CSS and PNG support.
"There are certainly aspects of IE rendering that developers would love to see some changes to," Schare said. "The challenge is that changing the way IE works along those lines has huge ramifications for backwards compatibility for Web sites that people have been building for years and years."
While developers call on Microsoft to give IE a general makeover, and Microsoft insists that its browser feature development efforts are strictly reserved for Longhorn, some people are posting wish lists of their own, including some on Microsoft's own Channel 9 blog site.
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