Microsoft to change IE - Web standards at last?

With everthing that's happened these past few days (a lot of work, little sleep and the constant need to keep doing other stuff outside the office just to keep sane), I overlooked this piece of news. Thanks to brain-dead US patent legislation (which essentially allows you to patent anything you can provide a vague description for, give or take a couple of loopholes), Eolas has successfully sued Microsoft for enough money to buy a small Pacific island over... plugins.

Or ActiveX controls embedded in web pages. Or (indirectly) Flash animations, Java applets, whatever. The patent terms are vague as hell, and searching enlightenment on the W3C page and associated mailing-list has, so far, yielded nothing better than a slightly fizzy candle.

Much more interesting was Eolas's own press page, which looks rather like the kill marks on a World War Two bomber. I remember having read the Cringely article on the suit at the time and thinking "Yeah, right. Like they stand a chance of winning."

The rest of the links on that page are mostly typical clueless press-drone blurbs that hint at impending doom for either Microsoft or Eolas, and were undoubtedly selected for their ability to impress potential investors - although, to their credit, Eolas is rather low key on attracting those.

(Of note is a UC Berkely FAQ related to the issue - UC gave Eolas exclusive rights to the technology in question).

Now it turns out they actually won the suit, and Microsoft is apparently looking at ways to change IE real soon now. People are starting to discuss the probable consequences (other than an appeal), and I suspect Apple and the Mozilla Project are considering what to do if Eolas decides to open another front.

(Update: Here are articles from CNET and eWeek that mention the likelyhood of Eolas suing other browser manufacturers.)

Even though I suspect this will eventually come to nothing (due to the size of the Web, the IE installed base, Microsoft's inability to automagically update every single Windows machine on the planet and the fact that there are other browser developers to sue), I'm curious to see what will happen to web design as we know it.

I've always been a server-side proponent. Get the data, re-format it for the client browser and convert whatever is necessary to make sure content can be read properly, no matter if the user has a 17" PowerBook, a Pocket PC or a WAP browser.

(Hmmm... OK. WAP should be banned as well, but that's another story.)

It makes for better overall design, consistent user experience across platforms and (when done properly) full device independence - something we definetly should take much more seriously in a planet where GSM phones can be used to see real web pages from anyplace.

(Update: Mark Pilgrim has a nice self-denominated rant on the subjects of Web standards, accessibility and portability, which I recommend if you want a nice compact overview of those subjects. On with our plugin horror show, then...)

But web designers are lazy, not that technical (I know a few exceptions, thankfully) and pressed for time. They'd rather have it look good on their browser and the customer's and be done with it, and will gladly make the end user download a new plugin if it makes their work look cooler, trendier or more "original" (good taste and usability, I'm afraid, are not quite at the top of the list, and compatibility is definetly stumbling about blindly in the basement).

As to plugins, the most important one these days (and just recently upgraded another notch) is Flash. Flash is a marvellous technology (and the only real useful one for dynamic content as far as I'm concerned), but we've seen Java, Flash, ActiveX and all sorts of non-portable "niche" technologies and plugins pollute the Web over the past few years - forcing people to constant plugin or VM upgrades, downloads, and the inevitable incompatibilities, crashes and aggravation for users.

The whole point of plugins was distorted from "provide extra media access" to "provide a better browsing experience" by adding scriptability (which brought us wonders of applied stupidity like JavaScript, cross-site scripting attacks and the latest clueless fad of "dynamic keyboards" for online banking), which sparked off an escalation of dynamic features in sites which eventually turned the purpose of plugins into "provide hours of annoyance with spurious upgrades, viruses, malware and intrusive advertisements".

(The Java applet deployment model is similarly broken, especially considering that it's still slow to download, slow to run and still effectively dominated by a single vendor - not to mention the fact that I've seen like twenty different and subtly incompatible versions of the Java runtimes so far.)

I'm all for having the Web purged of such junk, and hope this will help us through on the way to proper Web standards like CSS, SVG and (properly designed and safe) DHTML instead of plugins. Flash is the one thing to save, but it can (and is already being directed to) transition quite smoothly (and with some structural and dynamic generation improvements) to SVG.

But for me, the best news is that, if things are done properly this time around, there is a (admittedly slim) chance I'll stop seeing those amazingly stupid, irritating and intrusive Flash ads clueless companies keep paying for.

(I'm realistic. I know it won't actually happen, but it would be nice to have a proper dynamic web without the plugin and popup cruft. And why, oh why must we rely on such a blunt and clueless device as the US patent legislation to help us in this? <Sigh>)

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