Conversation with Opera on Web standards


On December 13, 2007, Opera Software filed an antitrust complaint with the European Commission. Opera's press release states:

The complaint describes how Microsoft is abusing its dominant position by tying its browser, Internet Explorer, to the Windows operating system and by hindering interoperability by not following accepted Web standards. Opera has requested the Commission to take the necessary actions to compel Microsoft to give consumers a real choice and to support open Web standards in Internet Explorer.

In this article, interviews Håkon Wium Lie, Chief Technology Officer at Opera Software, regarding the Web standards aspect of Opera's complaint to the European Commission.

Håkon Wium Lie bio

Håkon Wium Lie is native to Norway, where he works as Chief Technology Officer for Opera Software. Håkon joined Opera in 1999, and for four years prior to that worked at W3C. At W3C, Håkon was responsible for style sheets and is probably best known as the co-author of CSS, along with Bert Bos. Håkon and Bos also collaborated together on their best-selling book Cascading Style Sheets: Designing for the Web. Håkon is a sought-after commentator on the future of the Web and a popular speaker on Web standards. He holds an MS degree in visual studies from the MIT Media Lab.

Opera is asking the European Commission to compel Microsoft to implement Web standards in IE. What are the standards that you feel are absent in IE, or incorrectly implemented?
Håkon Wium Lie

Most of the standards they claim to support are only partially implemented, and long-standing bugs make it impossible to use other parts of the standards. When Microsoft promises to support a standard, we think they should use their best efforts to do so. Here is what they wrote back in 1998:

Microsoft has a deep commitment to working with the W3C on HTML and CSS...We are still committed to complete implementations of the Recommendations of the W3C in this area (CSS and HTML and the DOM)."

As you can see, Microsoft picked the standards themselves and there is no need for the European Commission or Opera to do so.
Why is it important that all Web browsers, including IE, implement core technologies that make up Web standards? Who is affected by missing or incorrectly implemented Web standards?
When a dominant vendor adds support for a standard, but doesn't do it correctly, the interoperability suffers. Interoperability is important for a lot of people. Web designers have spent countless hours trying to work around bugs in IE, while at the same time adhering to standards. Some give up along the way and just code for IE. This hurts the other browser vendors. Also, users feel the pain when they come to sites that don't work in their browser of choice.
Some people feel that each browser vendor should have the freedom to choose the features they implement. But your position seems to be that there are some features that must be implemented by all Web browsers. Is there a difference between Web standards features and other features such a tab browsing for example?

Indeed, there are two types of features: those that are related to standards and those that aren't. For example, you can change the user interface or improve the performance of the browser without changing its support for standards.

Features that are related to standards are different; they affect the interoperability of the web. Unless browsers support the same core set of standards in the same manner, we don't have interoperability. To protect interoperability on the web, all players must adhere by the rules. Even Microsoft.
What impact does IE's incorrect implementation of Web standards have on other browser vendors such as Opera? For instance, some browser vendors implement buggy/incorrect behaviour deliberately, in order to render Web pages in the same way as IE does. Does Opera do this? If so, how much development/testing resources do you have to dedicate to do this?
Yes, we have to research buggy and incorrect behavior. It's very expensive to try to work out what the quirks are. At Opera, we've spent countless hours on this.
Many developers have built and continue to build Web sites that rely on the incorrect implementation of Web standards or buggy behavior in IE. So fully complying with Web standards or fixing that buggy behavior may cause Web sites to break for IE users. How do you propose Microsoft might comply with Web standards and fix buggy behavior without breaking existing Web sites for IE users?
It is quite possible to support standards correctly while also rendering legacy content as the author expects. All modern browsers support two rendering modes: "standards" mode and "quirks" mode. We're simply asking Microsoft to make sure that their "standards" mode really support the standards and not a partially documented list of bugs. A good way for Microsoft to show support for web standards is to make sure that Internet Explorer supports the Acid2 test.
In comments on the IE blog prior to the release of IE 7, many IE users were requesting that Microsoft fully implement CSS 2.1, XHTML served as XML, MathML and SVG. These features were not implemented in IE 7, and there are no indications that they will be implemented in IE 8. Do you think there are business advantages for Microsoft in not implementing these technologies in IE?
As a general rule, standards don't help the big players—it's much more convenient for the monopolist to do his own thing instead of having to listen to others. That's why Microsoft was much more eager to support standards when they were challenging Netscape around 1996. So I think their choice in standards is basically a business decision—it's not a moral or technical issue for them.
If the European Commission does not compel Microsoft to implement Web standards and Microsoft does not voluntarily implement these standards, what impact will this have on the future of the Web?
The European Commission has a chance to correct the market for browsers in a way that will benefit standards and interoperability on the web. We hope they use this opportunity. I don't want to speculate on how bad things can get if they don't. However, I want to say that Opera will continue to fight for an open web where users have a genuine choice of browsers.