Software

When will Microsoft fully embrace Web standards?

Microsoft’s slow push towards standards compliance with strides in Internet Explorer 7 gave Web developer Tony Patton hope that the company had finally realized the benefits of Web standards. However, his experience with SharePoint 2007 and Outlook 2007 squashed his optimism.

I recently revisited the issue of using Web standards when working with Microsoft SharePoint 2007 and Outlook 2007. The products' lack of adherence to Web standards was surprising given the advancements incorporated in Internet Explorer 7. Microsoft's slow push towards standards compliance with strides in Internet Explorer 7 gave me hope that the company had finally realized the benefits of Web standards. However, my experience with SharePoint 2007 and Outlook 2007 squashed my optimism.

Web standards

Every Web developer has experienced the pains of developing applications for multiple browser vendors and versions. No browser is without its quirks, which are often related to Web standards. The Web site Position Is Everything provides good information on various browser quirks that developers should remember when building applications. Given Internet Explorer's large share of the browser space, it's often assailed when discussing browser quirks.

The promise of Web standards is the creation of a level playing field. That is, a known set of technical standards are observed by Web browsers, thus easing your burden and allowing you to concentrate on design and development as opposed to workarounds for different browsers.

The World Wide Web Consortium backs the move to Web standards; the Web Standards Project is pushing standards to make Web technologies accessible to all; and notable Web developers are behind the Web standards initiative. This swell of support for Web standards and the rise of more standards-friendly browsers like Firefox led Microsoft to promise to move in the right direction.

Microsoft promoted its move towards Web standards when developing the latest version of its browser platform with Internet Explorer 7. It makes progress with regards to Web standards support, but it still has a ways to go. Many view this progress as positive, saying that Microsoft was finally "getting it;" unfortunately, HTML e-mail support in Outlook 2007 and the design techniques in SharePoint 2007 say otherwise.

Outlook 2007

I am not the biggest Microsoft supporter, but as a developer, the abundance of Microsoft technologies at client sites is hard to ignore -- after all, I do have to make a living. With that in mind, I installed Outlook 2007 to keep up with the market.

HTML e-mail has become a standard e-mail format. Like regular Web applications, the HTML mail developer must be aware of various mail clients and rendering issues. Also, there is a push for HTML e-mail standards within the Web community.

Outlook always had its quirks, but Outlook 2007 introduced a drastic change -- it uses Microsoft Word to render HTML-formatted messages. Yes, the Internet Explorer engine was discarded in favor of a word processor.

The use of Word moves the developer back a few years, as it relies on tables for layout and everything else. That's right, throw away that CSS and use tables. Maybe Microsoft can be persuaded to fix this with a patch for Outlook, but it doesn't look like it will happen. The development techniques used in its SharePoint product are no better.

SharePoint 2007

SharePoint 2007 is a powerful portal platform, but it falls short when you examine its Web design techniques. The main complaint about the sites delivered by the SharePoint platform is the lack of adherence to Web standards.

SharePoint follows the previously discussed approach of Microsoft Word by leaning on HTML tables for layout. The built-in Web parts included with SharePoint spit out HTML tables for all facets of layout. Therefore, the use of CSS for layout is nonexistent. Even the most basic standards support via XHTML and accessibility are poor. It makes you wonder if Microsoft has abandoned Web standards altogether.

Where do we go?

A quick review of Outlook 2007 and SharePoint 2007 reveal serious flaws in Web standards support by Microsoft and its products. I find this confusing because Web standards are a notable feature of Microsoft's Expression Web and Visual Studio 2005.

The confusion lies in deciding where Microsoft will go with future products and support for Web standards. Can Web developers believe Microsoft's rhetoric and expect the company to fall in line and deliver something we can utilize while not having to go against standards? Or, should we be cynical and expect Microsoft to always go its own way?

What is your experience with Web standards and Microsoft products? Do you expect Microsoft to embrace standards with future products? Share your thoughts with the Web development community.

Tony Patton began his professional career as an application developer earning Java, VB, Lotus, and XML certifications to bolster his knowledge.

Check out the Web Development Zone archive, and catch up on the most recent editions of Tony Patton's column.

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About

Tony Patton has worn many hats over his 15+ years in the IT industry while witnessing many technologies come and go. He currently focuses on .NET and Web Development while trying to grasp the many facets of supporting such technologies in a productio...

33 comments
CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Not one minute sooner or later.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

It was the first thing I thought when I read the title. hehe.. cheers

GoboSlayer
GoboSlayer

I really like Tony's columns, but this one has a few points which are not entirely related to one another. SharePoint is not the web, nor is it simply a website. SharePoint is an application. It is a powerful and highly configurable application that integrates with desktop applications (MS Office), back office applications (Dynamics/CRM), mail servers (Exchange) and yes, even Internet Explorer. Since SharePoint sites/portals are generally secured to only company employees or partners, the environment in which they run is essentially controlled/contained. Unfortunately, much of the integration required by this application is beyond the scope of W3C standards. That doesn't justify the point, but it does clarify it a bit. Given their past, I know that it is easy to vilify Microsoft in the quest for a standard web. But Tony touched on Microsoft's effort with his mentioning of the rich standards support in VS2005 and Expression Web. The HTML editor in VS2005 will tell you if you are using an element or attribute that is out-dated or deprecated from the current standard. You can also choose to have your entire site examined for WCAG and if you have a violation of WCAG, it will tell you the WCAG section as well as instruct you what you must do to correct it. Also, all Microsoft provided ASP.NET 2.0 server controls emit standards compliant markup. The bottom line is this; SharePoint and Outlook are applications - not the web. Although they use HTML, there is a significant difference. Standards have their place and are a very good thing, and when it comes to providing standards compliant tools for developers, Microsoft has made tremendous improvements.

Twaka
Twaka

In defense of the duplicate perhaps even triplicate posts, you get a proxy error when attempting to post, but the post goes through anyway! Like I did before editing the duplicate with this message, if you resubmit your post ...it's duplicated... Perhaps it is Microsofts' fault! I am using IE7.

Tig2
Tig2

This is a known TR issue. When posting, if the return page is anything but a successful post, please open a second tab and check the thread you are posting to. You should see your post there. I will then go back to the error page, hit the back button and go back to the Forum front door. This error pre-dates the site re-design. Thank you for editing your duplicated message. Many people omit that step. :)

Twaka
Twaka

I really expected some professionalism first in the article (which is very anti-microsoft and filled with errors) and in some of the numerous responses! I wonder if the "html is spam" individual will go back to black and white television. As far back as I can remember, Outlook has always had the option of using Word. Those you complain about Microsofts' attempt at domination...we live in a capitalist society. Oh did I forget "democratic" as well? So I guess all those ill-thought of articles and comments with Microsofts' domination are products of our society and I waste my time here.

number15
number15

Microsoft's lack of standard means I have to do extra works just to make sure that IE user able to read/experience my html code as good as anyone else. Extra works means 50% of the time I spent on making website is wasted on making sure my standard code compatible with IE. Wouldn't you say yes if your boss said that you could go home everyday at 12? It is not so democratic when every Windows is pre installed with IE. Imagine.. you bought a home (Windows OS) that come with a free Kia sedan (IE). 100 km from you is a Ferrari (Opera) dealer and they are for free. Unfortunately most of your neighbor think that the Kia is a better car. Some of them think its the only way to transport them to work or grocery. They think Ferrari is not a car. How frustrating is that? IE destroys Netscape's dream to make a lot of money out of their web browser. In my opinion, IE is the reason why web browser is free today and why we support them. Unfortunately, making web browser free for everyone is not Microsoft's main goal. Their goal is to make money just like Netscape. Web browser is like water to us. The government has not come to realize this yet. When they do, they will make Microsoft voluntarily follow the standard. 10 years and we haven't really move from html version 3.2. The xHTML (replacing html version 4.1) is the web standard since 2001 and until now Microsoft has not follow them. I blame Microsoft for the lack of progress in web development. If you think ajax, php, and jsp is cool? Think again! If it weren't for Microsoft lack of standard, we would probably have 3d web or virtual reality instead of flash.

LonePalm58
LonePalm58

Outlook's 2003 default format was HTML, and its default editor was MS Word. This feature could be turned off by getting to the Mail Format page through the Options dialog box, as it can be in Outlook 2007. Options also allow for RTF or plain text.

filipe.pereira
filipe.pereira

I believe Microsoft engineers are missing some strategic meetings. We all put a lot of expectation over Microsoft products but in fact they need to change mentalities: in today?s lexicon "standard" means a completely different thing. We can?t forget that Microsoft started as a standard breaker. In fact they put PC?s in our hands, when the standard was to leave them inside official labs. In those days all of us loved the move. But now, Microsoft?s away of rendering a problem with an acceptable presentation, it isn't enough. It?s time to reinvent themselves. It?s time to become a smaller company. Impossible!! I know.

Justin James
Justin James

See, the reason why Microsoft feels like they do not need to adhere to anyone else's standard, is that their products tend to be so ubiquitous, they are a "standard" unto themselves. For example, if you use .Net, and VSTO, you can code against Office and reach 95% (or more) of business PCs with a lot less work than it takes to code against the ODF spec. Or if you use .Net and target Silverlight, it is a lot easier to leverage your existing .Net knowledge than to try to learn Flash. Not defending the practice, but they've had the strategic meetings... and from where they sit, their strategy makes sense. I think their gross and net revenues prove out that they are making the best decision for their company, which may not be the best decision for their customers. :( J.Ja

Tig2
Tig2

Justin, you're right. MS does have the ability to touch the widest audience. But my sense is that if they don't recognize the standards bodies out there, they will become replacable. MS won the field by producing products that met a business need. And inevitably, a home need as well. Once that infrastructure was in place, business had little appetite for replacing it with something else. Today end users have a greater awareness of what is available to them. And they are discovering that it doesn't always have Microsoft stamped on the side. Just last year, I took the provider of the 3 Day site to task for failing to support any browser other than IE. That changed and my Firefox browser is now supported. Another issue that will come into play is the need to audit compliance for a variety of security initiatives. Managing to standards compliance eases that task. And failure to manage to standards may result in business re-examining their appetite for infrastructure change. Microsoft strategy may have been workable a couple of years ago. In my opinion, it gets less workable every day.

crcanassr
crcanassr

No it did not. IBM designed the PC and MS got the design of the OS job (actually a purchased copy of CPM) by accident. Before PC's there were PC's and IBM was a late commer. I owned a Morrow that performed quite well (for the state of the art at the time), and Apple was way ahead when the first PC came out. The name IBM sold the PC to corporate America and made it a success and a standard. Remember when the lame Win95 came out, Apple already had a much better graphical interface and OS.

filipe.pereira
filipe.pereira

I understand the background and your accurate details. But you agree that was MS and massive deploy of windows operating systems that made PC's the most sold gadget worldwide. That was the reason for what i said.

andres_ruiz_perez
andres_ruiz_perez

Microsoft will always be Microsoft, don't forget. I'm tired of IE7 own standards. I use the best web standards compilant browser: Opera.

reholli
reholli

So is it Opera that caused you to triplicate your post?

djamieson
djamieson

now that is funny. I think it behooves us all to remember that despite our likes or dislikes, the truth of the matter is that if not for microsoft there would be no IT industry as we know it. And, if there weren't these small failings, our jobs as "computer folks" would be moot. :-) Now, having said that, Firefox for all my friends!

Justin James
Justin James

Imagine, if things had worked out a bit different, AT&T could have locked down the UNIX-related standards, and there would be no BSD, Solaris, AIX, HPUX, Linux, etc. Indeed, the entire open source movement only exists because it could consolidate around POSIX and *Nix systems. Then, we would all view AT&T the way we do Microsoft... woops, too late, no one likes AT&T anyways. :) J.Ja

ptnelson1
ptnelson1

It's said that nature abhors a vacuum. If no Microsoft, then some other company or companies would have filled the gap. The IT industry would certainly exist, maybe not as we know it: Could be better or could be worse. You computer folks might have been fighting a different beast, but still a beast.

andres_ruiz_perez
andres_ruiz_perez

Microsoft will always be Microsoft, don't forget. I'm tired of IE7 own standards. I use the best web standards compilant browser: Opera.

andres_ruiz_perez
andres_ruiz_perez

Microsoft will always be Microsoft, don't forget. I'm tired of IE7 own standards. I use the best web standards compilant browser: Opera.

Justin James
Justin James

"Outlook always had its quirks, but Outlook 2007 introduced a drastic change ??? it uses Microsoft Word to render HTML-formatted messages." Outlook has been able to use Word as its email editor for a while now. Even in Outlook 2007, though, *it is not mandatory*. This is a very easily overlooked option in Outlook 2007 to use a non-Word editor, but it is off by default. That is actually the real difference, I *beleive* that Word was never the default editor before. But you are mostly right. Word 2007 still cranks out some fairly hideous HTML, and using it as the default is not so hot. That being said, I just took a look at the source code from an Outlook 2007 message that was using Word 2007 as the editor... and it is filled with CSS. The only real HTML quirkiness I saw (I didn't inspect too hard) was using the B tag instead of STRONG. I also took that source and put it into Firefox, and it rendered just fine. J.Ja

Nodisalsi
Nodisalsi like.author.displayName 1 Like

IE is NOT a web browser, it is a portal for MS and it's "partners" to channel it's hapless consumers towards their business - just like AOL's old client software. All that concerns MS is IE's integration with Office, the OS and a plethora of stolen technologies that come factory installed with every new PC. Gecko based applications are web browsers - but not IE. Compatibility and Security does not appear to be a priority at MS, but keeping competitors away from a market share is. So the competition and small business services will always tied up with MS-compatibility issues until they either become "partners", "associates" - or whatever, just as long as you fork up $$$ for it - or they become so financially insecure MS can just buy up their intellectual property. I will no longer do any web design work unless I can put in the following element:

GoboSlayer
GoboSlayer

Let's not forget here that as developers, it is our responsibility to do what is right for the client. Although standards compliance may always be at the forefront of your development priorities, that is not always the case for your client. That integration that you mentioned isn't just b/c MS wants it, their clients want it too.

Meesha
Meesha

Tony, could it be that the lack of standards from MS is only because of their push to ensure the dominance of their Office products? The latest release Office 2007 has it even more integrated with HTML et al. MS's desire to further "own" SaaS as well as its attempts to best others such as Google for web apps may also be drivers for its not standardizing. Just a thought.

Jaqui
Jaqui

I never expect MS to meet any standards, since they ignore the ISO standards for OS Security even. [ if MS met the ISO standards for OS security, they wouldn't have so many exploitable holes in their code base ] on another note: HTML email is a standard, FOR SPAM. any real communication would not be in html format. Anyone that thinks pictures and colours are required for a letter [ email is only a letter ] needs to have their head examined. I actually blacklisted HOTMAIL, Microsoft, YAHOO because they default to html formatted email.

edtrimm
edtrimm

Frankly, I like pictures and pretties in my email. I like to see the products from the companies I do business with. I *need* to see the book covers for the businesses I work with. So, no, I don't agree that an email is just a letter and doesn't need HTML. It is much more than that to those of us who do business in a small way. What I blacklisted was IE7 and finally went to Foxfire because IE7 crashed every 30 seconds and I couldn't get a thing done. So blacklist the truly bad things. Save your petty vitriol for things like out-sourced customer service people who can't speak English. Now *there's* something you can legitimately snarl about.

TJ111
TJ111

Ms supports web standards as much as G. Bush supports the "green movement", just enough to make people complacent. Any ajax developer will tell you, I can get basic ajax based web interface up and running in an hour in Firefox (and Opera/Safari), then spend 2 hours trying to get it to work in IE. I dream of a day when the world stops using IE, and I can get back to writing applications, not making workarounds to work on a buggy browser. As far as HTML email goes, I don't have enough experience in that area to comment either way, but from the way you talk it sounds like a similar situation.

FXEF
FXEF

MS wants to _set_ all standards, not comply to existing standards. MS expects everyone to bow down and praise them. Let's face facts, it's just not in MS best interest to play by the rules.

gruntos
gruntos like.author.displayName 1 Like

Shame in this case that the choice is to punish the technology rather than focus on limiting the success of the ones abusing it. As a pro web dev I can assure you that in forward moving industries HTML email is the standard for very good reasons. A quick search in your favorite engine will show why. It's ironic that some only let plain text emails into their inbox, and claim they can get by just fine with it... maybe they can, but they're severly limiting their potential to expand their knowledge of useful materials and resources, while looking very unprofessional in the process.

Jaqui
Jaqui

you can have all the advertisements you want in your inbox. html email is spam.

DanLM
DanLM

You with blacklisting Hotmail, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Or me, with all of China and Korea fire walled. Dan

Jaqui
Jaqui

I have more than just those three blacklisted. any domain that sends me an html email gets blacklisted. [ Honeywell got blacklisted ] I blacklist specific addresses for top posting in replies.

SnoopDougEDoug
SnoopDougEDoug

Don't forget to blacklist folks who fail to trim their replies, or don't spellcheck, or use poor grammar, or just plain annoy you. You quack me up. (Oops, just got blacklisted by Jaqui, LOL).

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