Joel Spolsky is being an idiot in public again

Joel Spolsky has written a screed on what he sees as "the mother of all flamewars". He's right at least, in that there has already been a bit of froth over the flip-flopping "web standards support in IE 8" announcements from Microsoft. That is (if you haven't been following A List Apart lately): they first announced that IE8 would be broken by default unless you turned it off, then changed their minds. For now, IE8 will operate in super-standards-compliant mode by default, unless you signal in your HTML that you'd prefer the backwards-compatible rendering.

I have two problems with Joel's essay. One is the way he frames the "birth of standards", which doesn't conform to my understanding of the history of the thing. (The W3C, for example, has had a standards body since roughly 1994, and the WaSP has been around since 1998.) In Joel's version of history, Microsoft was humbly trying to innovate, when the fascist "standardistas" descended upon it to crush it's free-thinking ways. There's some evidence that Microsoft (at least at the higher levels) has been semi-deliberately breaking standards in a clumsy attempt to manipulate the market.

The second problem I have with Joel's essay is the way he portrays the complications of standards compliance. In Joel's view, Microsoft's flouting of standards is not merely accidental, but probably imaginary, since there's "no way to test a web page against the standard" (which demonstrably isn't true). And gosh it sure is hard to read those spec documents (a programmer's life is oh-so hard). If only there were some kind of group that could help the poor, overwhelmed software developer make sense of it all.

I came to web standards from the obsessed with accessibility side of the field, while working on sites whose primary audiences often included the deaf and/or blind. Web standards and web accessibility are more like "two great tastes that taste great together" than "two birds with one stone", nevertheless a pursuit of one often naturally leads to the other. Maybe Mr Spolsky hasn't been a web developer very long, and maybe those of us who've been here a little longer have taken it for granted that "every" web developer is now "on board" with web standards.

At any rate, for me, the whole IE8 kerfluffle seems like a tempest-in-a-teapot. Either Microsoft will force web developers through new contortions for compatibility, or they won't. It wouldn't be the first time, and IE is hardly the only browser – or software tool of any variety – to require some kind of work-around when a new version ships. There's an argument that explicit version targeting could actually be a good thing (assuming for the moment that Microsoft's promise of forward compatibility holds any water – not that I think it does.) But there's a consistency of logical thought in the "it should work right by default" argument that's hard to argue against. To paraphrase Roger Johansson, if your site breaks in IE8 and you can't or won't fix it, why should the rest of us suffer?

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Comments

Joshua Apr 11, 2008

Mark Pilgrim has a snarkier critique here.

Brian May 1, 2008

Yeah that post was sort of annoying to me too. I think Joel missed the point and seems to be subtly defending microsoft. Its not about idealistic standards compliance vs. pragmatic backwards compatibility as he put it.

Obviously everyone has to balance those two as best they can. The issue is that Microsoft never seems to give a damn about standards compliance. And it can't be THAT hard, because everyone else (Firefox, Safari, etc) was able to get much closer. Microsoft just can't seem to play well with others