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Giving Web Standards a Seat at the Table

Internet Explorer 7 from when it first came out

A really special thanks to <a href=”“>Molly Holzschlag</a> for all of her help writing this article, and with this project in general. Many thanks to you Molly, for your continued support and ongoing work with the web.

In late 2007, Molly Holzschlag was invited to sit down with Bill Gates at a Microsoft roundtable event. Holzschlag had met Gates the year prior, at a similar event, and they were there to discuss the same thing—web browesers and standards. The meeting was kept fairly short; each person was given only a single question.

She was there representing the Web Standards Project (WaSP) in her role as project lead. WaSP had been working with Microsoft for several years, advocating for standards support in Internet Explorer that kept pace with the latest developments from the W3C. Internet Explorer 7, released a year prior, had been proof of a successful collaboration between Microsoft and the community of developers working on behalf of WaSP. Holzschlag, however, sensed that the communication between WaSP and Microsoft was slipping.

As an outsider coming to the meeting, Holzschlag was in a unique position to push back on Microsoft and circumvent the internal politics of the largest tech company in the country. So when it was time for her question, she cut right to the chase. She explained that in the past six months, Microsoft had dropped some lines of communication that had been so instrumental in their previous collaborations, adding,:

Because being the person here that’s supposed to be the liaison between designers and developers for the Web and the browser conversation, this conversation seems to have been pretty much shut down.

Gates referred her to Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of the IE team, to talk through what kind of improvements were going to make it into Internet Explorer 8. Gates wanted to make sure that Holzschalg knew that this was only a temporary slip, and that her team and his would soon be on the same page.

“I’ll look into it,” he promised.

This was the CEO of Microsoft, a notoriously closed-off software company, guaranteeing that not only would web standards be a first class citizen in Internet Explorer 8, but transparency and collaboration were fundamental to the browser’s development.

In order to understand how much things had changed at Microsoft—how important that level of transparency was—you need to go back several years, at the time when WaSP was created.

A decade before that meeting, in the mid to late 1990’s, Microsoft and Netscape aggressively competed for browser market share, in what would later be called the Browser Wars. The two companies worked in isolation, Netscape on Navigator, and Microsoft on Internet Explorer, adding in proprietary features and moving further away from the standards and promise of an open web.

Developers found themselves frustrated and caught in the middle of this conflict. A grassroots movement formed aimed at convincing browsers to more evenly support web technologies, especially the Document Object Model (DOM). They called themselves the Web Standards Project, or WaSP. Jeffrey Zeldman, leading the first iteration of the group, would often use a tactic referred to as the WaSP’s “string”—putting public pressure on browsers to adopt better standards and DOM support through scathing, public online editorials, and broad, relentless email campaigns. Microsoft was a frequent target.

In 2001, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 6. Web standards began to change. The browser was, for the most part, celebrated by Zeldman and the Web Standards Project for better-than-average DOM and standards support. Over time, the organization leaned less on the WaSP’s sting, and shifted their focus from pressuring browsers to developer education and outreach.

Internet Explorer 6 when it first came out

At least, that is, for a short while.

Microsoft, not too keen on learning from their past mistakes, decided that they had basically done their job. After the release of IE6, they shuffled engineers from the IE team to other places, and left only one or two people around to steer the ship.

The web platform, meanwhile, continued to move forward. A lot happened in just a few short years. The W3C was transitioning towards XHTML and new standards specifications. CSS, a relatively new technology when IE 6 was released, was being actively worked on at the W3C. Firefox, an offshoot of Netscape, released their standards-compliant open source browser. Opera, a constant advocate for web standards, was up to version 7, the first browser to introduce tabbed browsing. And both added some really impressive CSS support (even if their share of the market was small).

Microsoft had nothing new to add to the conversation. IE 6, once a champion of web standards, once again fell behind, and was criticized for failing to catch up with modern web standards. With little to no movement in the browser in half a decade, many developers even began to blame Microsoft for holding the web back.

Holzschlag had worked with the organization for years, primarily on CSS. In 2003, she was asked to help lead the project, along with co-lead Steve Champeon. She entered a world of rapidly evolving web specifications and genuine excitement from a growing community of web developers. Microsoft, however, remained a major hurdle and if the web were going to progress, Microsoft would need to come on board.

The Web Standards Project website when Holzschlag took charge

At a time when it seemed that Microsoft and WaSP were deepening their trenches, all Holzschlag saw was a bridge. That outlook would end up having a huge impact on web standards.

Rather than coordinate a strike against Microsoft, Holzschlag began meeting with members of the Internet Explorer team to see if there was anyway they could work together. To her surprise, they were delighted to meet with her. Though not widely known at the time, there were some employees inside Microsoft that had even begun to internally advocate for better standards support and a new version of the browser. Developers like Chris Wilson and Markus Mielke had been pushing their bosses to do better for a while now. But what they needed was a good push from the outside.

Shortly after the introductions were made, WaSP set up the Microsoft Web Standards Project Task Force, an official statement of cooperation between WaSP and Microsoft. The web community had learned a lot about HTML and CSS from open source browsers like Opera and Firefox. But that standards support needed to make its way into IE. The task force worked with Microsoft, connecting directly with developers on their team, and advocating for better compliance with W3C standards in future versions of Internet Explorer.

Not everyone agreed with the new direction of WaSP; there were supporters of standards that pushed back on cooperation with Microsoft. But Holzschlag knew that rivalry had led to stagnation. Cooperation might lead to progress.

And Microsoft really did begin to open things up. They talked to the community and gathered feedback. Wilson and Mielke started a public blog, with dispatches from inside the Internet Explorer development team. With support from the outside—and now with at least some support also from within—that team Internet Explorer 7 in 2006, with better web standards compliance, a faster interface, and a brand new UI.

Also in 2006, Holzschlag was invited to Microsoft’s annual all-hands Mix. She sat on a panel with other members from the web community, like Andy Clarke and Eric Meyer, along with members from the IE team. They spoke openly about the issues developers faced when working with their browser, and what could best be done in the future. The beta was already released for IE 7, but the team from Microsoft listened to this feedback and began working it into the next version. It was there that she met Bill Gates for the first time.

Attendees of the roundtable event

Which brings us all the way back to 2007, when Holzschlag was invited back for the roundtable event—Microsoft Mix’n’Mash (this time with a slightly tighter group of engineers asking the questions)—with a question for Bill Gates that kicked off this post.

In that period, after the release of Internet Explorer 7 and ahead of the Internet Explorer 8 launch, Microsoft’s browser team was passionate and ambitious. Many were representatives at the W3C. They knew what had to be done, but they needed approval from on high. Holzschlag applied some pressure with her question for Gates, pushing web standards back into the conversation.

A lot had changed in ten years. Bill Gates now understood the importance of Internet Explorer, and of web standards. When Holzschlag posed her question, he responded to it directly. The culture surrounding Microsoft’s browser team really had changed. They were given freedom and support to work on technologies that wouldn’t just make Internet Explorer better, but would make the web better too.

Over the next few years, that browser team would open up even more. In public announcements, and a in a growing blog penned by Wilson, Mielke and others on the IE team, Microsoft proved willing and able to collaborate with WaSP and standards-focused developers.

The release of Internet Explorer 8 in 2009 proved that point. It had better compliance with W3C standards than any of its predecessors, including a more complete implementation of the DOM, better CSS support, and the inclusion of ARIA landmarks. It was an incredible change from the Microsoft that had released Internet Explorer 6 in 2001.

Holzschlag eventually stepped down from her role as lead at WaSP and began consulting for Microsoft. Her work with the web, advocating for open access and web standards, has never stopped. Her time at WaSP was part of a web community that grew together towards a more standards-compliant future.