Standards are used to ensure that products or services can be developed to reliably perform in a known and predictable way. That's a laudable aim and can work well in a field with no innovation. So anyone can go to Paris and see the standard metre bar. Even there the metre is now defined as the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second. However the difference is minimal. A metre is still a metre for almost all practical applications.
Standards are much more difficult to apply in a field where there is rapid innovation. If the technology allows a new approach, then eager developers will wish to use that technology. This happens even though the process of defining the standards that should apply will necessarily take a longer time. Standards require concensus and this may be difficult to achieve. For web browsers it is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that attempts to develop concensus on standards. Its mission is to develop interoperable technologies (specifications, guidelines, software, and tools) to lead the Web to its full potential.
Anyone who slaps a ‘this page is best viewed with Browser X’ label on a Web page appears to be yearning for the bad old days, before the Web, when you had very little chance of reading a document written on another computer, another word processor, or another network.
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and director of the W3C
Browser standards are going through a most interesting evolution at this time. Accordingly this post will set out the 'big picture' view of the browser standards scene. Those who require more specific directions on particular aspects of standards are encouraged to visit the W3C website, where there is a wealth of relevant information.
Most browsers have two modes of operation. They may show web pages that are coded correctly according to a defined standard in a Standards Compliant Mode for that particular standard. Any other web page will be displayed in a Quirks Mode. The Standards Compliant Mode should ensure that the display in one browser will be very similar to what would be seen in another browser operating according to its own Standards Compliant Mode. There will always be slight differences since different browsers may choose to adopt slightly different default behaviours. When a browser operates in its Quirks Mode, then there are no guarantees on how the display will appear. Different browser developers may choose what they regard as the most robust behaviour for any given code.
The unsettling influence in all this has been the Internet Explorer browser. In early versions it always operated only in Quirks Mode. This would often cause major differences in the way IE would display a standards-validated web-page compared with how it would appear in other browsers using Standards Compliant Mode. The only way to ensure reasonable display in both standards-compliant browsers and Internet Explorer was to add hacks that affected only the IE display and were invisible in other browsers.
This has created a large number of websites (a legacy) that display correctly in Internet Explorer but are not standards-compliant. In moving towards more standards-compliant web designing this massive legacy cannot be ignored. Microsoft is now much more standards-compliant minded. The new Internet Explorer Version 7 Beta2 Preview as discussed in the thread: Test Driving IE 7 Beta2 preview has different ways of handling standards-compliant web pages. Web pages coded according to the STRICT standard will be displayed in a standards-compliant mode for that standard. All other web pages even if coded according to another standard will be displayed in a Quirks Mode. This Quirks Mode will mean that most 'old' web pages will still appear as they would in the prior version 6 of Internet Explorer. 'New' web pages coded according to the STRICT standard will be displayed strictly according to that standard. In this way, Microsoft has found an elegant way of beginning to handle the legacy.
Internet Explorer is not the only browser that has issues with standards, although it is the one that affects most people. A recent article on Graded Browser Support by Nate Koechley, Senior Web Developer, of Yahoo! Inc. that appeared on February 13, 2006 covers this well. As is said there:
The more people who are aware of the challenges and the solutions, the more likely that the right steps are taken. One initiative that is worth mentioning is the Web Standards Project. This is a grassroots coalition fighting for standards that ensure simple, affordable access to web technologies for all.
Support does not mean that everybody gets the same thing. Expecting two users using different browser software to have an identical experience fails to embrace or acknowledge the heterogeneous essence of the Web. In fact, requiring the same experience for all users creates a barrier to participation. Availability and accessibility of content should be our key priority.
Edited by bwelford, 06 March 2006 - 08:54 PM.