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.

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By Tony Patton

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...