156. IE8

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: Ryan talks to Andy Clarke about Internet Explorer 8, Paul looks at how to simplify your site, and Michael argues that marketing should run the company website.

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Don’t forget our SXSW coverage

Just a quick reminder that next week is our live boagworld show from SXSW. If you are attending the conference please sign up on upcoming and come along. If you aren’t then you can watch via uStream. The show is being recorded at 6.30PM (CST) at the Hilton Hotel, Room B.

Whether you can attend or not we would love to receive your questions for the panel. Email them to me ASAP!

You can also follow coverage of SXSW on the boagworld website, so check that out too.

A Website Owners Manual Discount

For those who don’t already know I have now finished the ‘Website Owners Manual‘. This means the book is moving into production where they give it the final design and replace my terrible illustrations. Hopefully this process should be finish by July when the book will finally be released.

However, the entire draft manuscript is available now in ebook format for those who cannot wait. Also with Manning’s early access programme you can preorder the printed book and get a copy of the draft ebook to read immediately.

To further sweeten the deal you can get a massive 40% discount if you use the code ‘AUPROMO40‘ at checkout.

To order go to boagworld.com/websiteownersmanual.

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News and events

If only IE played nice

Let’s kick off with two posts that really makes you wish IE played nicely!

First up isFluid Grids, an A List Apart article that discusses fluid layout and the limitations of IE. In particular it focuses on IE6 and its failure to allow page scaling. When combined with the smaller resolutions of many netbook PCs, it is apparently that fluid layout remains an ongoing requirement for many sites.

An example grid

The article takes you step by step through the process of creating a fluid grid system. Although it is very comprehensive, it does involve some serious maths and leaves you with an even deeper hatred for IE.

The second post I wanted to mention is written by Rachel Andrew and is entitled Developing CSS for IE6 and 7. This is a great introduction to building websites using CSS and surviving to tell the tale!

The emphasis is on the development process and how to address common IE problems. It is a very pragmatic article that is not afraid to mention the use of conditional comments and hacks. In fact in many ways it is the total opposite of a recent post on Sitepoint entitled SitePoint » 5 Reasons to Avoid CSS Hacks and Conditional Stylesheets. That post borders on naivety.

Its nice to see a resurgence of posts on CSS. They disappeared for a while and yet I believe there is still room for improvement in how we build sites.

Why Friends Reunited Failed

In last week’s show I talked about the harsh truths of running an online community. If that was relevant for you, then you should visit Andy Budd’s site and read this insightful post – Why Friends Reunited Failed

Friends Reunited Homepage

In his post Andy compares the failure of "Friends Reunited" compared to the success of Facebook.

The gist of Andy’s argument is two fold. Firstly, the site provided little to keep users coming back. Andy writes…

So with Friends Reunited once you’d registered, seen what your old friends were doing, connected with the ones you’d wanted to and had a laugh at the (hopefully) tragic lives of your childhood tormentors, there was very little reason to stick around.

Second, they decided to charge for membership, thereby changing the relationship…

Charging for a service changes the whole dynamic of a site and causes people to game the system in order to get the maximum return on their investment. So it becomes less of a community and more of a commercial relationship. Like a lot of commercial relationships, once the value runs out, people will stop paying and leave.

Its an interesting read and helps emphasis the importance of providing tangible value to your users.

WordPress overload

As you will know if you follow me on Twitter, I am currently in the process of moving Boagworld from Movable Type to WordPress. The primary reason for the move is WordPress’ vibrant development community. There are literally thousands of plugins available and endless tutorials and supporting material.

WordPress Homepage

Although Boagworld does provide some marketing benefits to Headscape, it is still a side project. As a result, the time I can invest in it is minimal. Plug-ins allow me to add functionality and make usability improvements with minimal effort.

Interestingly as I have been making this transition, I have noticed a substantial increase in the number of WordPress related posts in our news stream. I am not sure if this is because I am more aware with them or Paul Stanton thinks I need a bit of help. Either way they have been useful reading.

Three in particular have caught my attention…

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Interview: Andy Clarke on the release of IE8

Ryan Taylor: Joining me today is Andy Clarke. Hello, Andy.

Andy Clarke: Hi, how are you doing?

Ryan: Not so bad. And we’ve asked you on today to talk about the upcoming release of Internet Explorer 8.

Andy: Browsers, my favorite subject!

Ryan: Yes, well you seem to blog a lot about browsers at the minute, you seem to be talking a lot about Internet Explorer 8 especially.

Andy: Well, I’m kind of a bit of a grumpy old bastard, really, when it comes to browsers. And, so the topic of the moment, certainly of the last couple of weeks has been what are they going to do with IE8.

Ryan: Yeah, so should we be excited?

Andy: I don’t know whether we should be excited or whether or not the thing is a little bit of a anti-climax, to be perfectly honest. I think that there’s a huge difference between people like me who develop websites for normal people out there, conusmers who use the internet, and people like me who are aware of standards and passionate about CSS and maybe thinking about progressive enhancement and some of these other things. A huge difference between people like me and the army of people I know who work inside corporate environments. People who develop big banking finance applications, for example, where Internet Explorer is usually the vehicle that people access that content with. And I think that for those people, IE8 is a big deal. Particularly over what happened with IE7. So I think that for those kind of people, it’s going to be a ride again. But for people like me, you know it’s kind of a bit of a non-event, to be perfectly honest.

Ryan: And do you think they’ll start changing the way that they build websites because of IE8 then?

Andy: There’s an interesting kind of back story that goes on with what Microsoft did with IE, and generally speaking a lot of the problems that they have in developing that browser come because the people who build applications that are predominantly used by IE8 are not the people who are generally standards-aware. And this is why Microsoft has gotten themselves into so much trouble in the past when they have, let’s face it, done the right thing in improving the browser, particularly with IE7. And of course IE6 was famously full of colourful bugs, and all credit to the guys at Microsoft, who I know fairly well, in, you know they were very passionate about getting those things fixed. But of course when IE7 comes along and people that developed code for IE6 all of a sudden found their applications breaking, they didn’t look in the mirror and think, “Why is this stuff breaking? Is it my code? Is it something that we’ve done wrong or that we need to fix?” They blamed Microsoft. And Microsoft has this big thing about not releasing something that is going to, say, break the web. Well it won’t break the web, but what it might do is break applications and break websites that were based on a broken browser. So it’s not a simple issue, unfortunately, and this is something that Microsoft struggled with for quite some time, and I know that they’re going to be struggling with again in IE8.

Ryan: You mentioned that the way that you build websites for your blogs isn’t going to change, but CSS tables are going to be available in IE8. Do you think that we’re going to see CSS tables more widely spread and adopted in web design?

Andy: I’m sure we are, I mean I’m always really pleased whenever there’s a piece of CSS that’s more widely adopted. IE in itself has been dragging its feet about CSS tables behind all other browsers. I think that, where appropriate, yes CSS tables are going to be useful, but I think there was a lot of excitement, I think wrongly, to do with CSS tables, in people thinking that all of a sudden we had a good way, or a new way of making CSS layouts. Something that was perhaps more reliable than using floats of positioning, and I think that the more and more that I look at that, the more I think that it’s essentially going down a wrong and a backwards route, if we think that mentally we start thinking about table cells again. What we do is we again start to tie what we see on the screen, in terms of the presentation, to form the structure of our markup, and that is always, always wrong. CSS tables do require that we order markup in a certain way, just like HTML tables did, and I think if people start to go down that route, then I think they’ll soon find that really there is absolutely no advantage, in effect, in replacing HTML table layouts with a bunch of divs and other structural elements and styling them like tables.

Ryan: Ok, so there’s going to be some improvements in IE8 over the previous browsers, but they’re introducing this compatability feature. Can you explain what that is? And share your views on it?

Andy: Aw, the famous compatability feature. Well, for those people who haven’t been following this thing for a while, and this goes back to what I was saying at the beginning about Microsoft’s core market, they have to be very careful that they aren’t seen as the ones who are, in their words, breaking the web when they fix some of the problems that they introduced before. So a little while ago they introduced this idea of using a meta element which would essentially tell the rendering engine inside of IE which version of IE that you wanted a page to look like. So, for example, if you were to use the IE7 meta tag inside the head of your document, IE8 would render your page as if it were IE7. Which, of course, is a great idea for these people who build these enormous IE-based corporate applications, because they don’t have to worry about IE8. They can simply stick this plaster on, this band-aid on, and go away and think “Great, I don’t have to think about IE8 now.” It gives them a little bit of breathing room. Now Microsoft originally wanted to introduce this thing as an opt-out process. Basically, the browser would render like IE7 unless you told it that you actually wanted it to render like IE8, which was completely backwards. So, a bunch of people – Jeremy Keith was the most eloquent as always – argued that this was a complete crock of shit and would essentially hold back any incentive for people to move to a better way of working, to use CSS and markup in better ways because of IE8. So Microsoft changd their minds, and they made it an opt-in rather than an opt-out. And
certain people took credit for them making that decision. I think only Microsoft know why they made that change. But interestingly in the last couple of weeks, it came to light over on the IE blog that they’re introducing this compatability feature which would essentially mean that anytime anybody pressed the “View in IE7” button, or used that feature, it would talk back to Microsoft. And then Microsoft would compile a list of sites that people clicked compatability-mode on, and then automatically, and perhaps without the viewers asking if they’d already opted into this thing, the browser would then hit a certain site and render as IE7 rather than IE8. That’s an interesting thing. A lot of people have been talking about the standards implications of that, and about the incentive for corporates to switch to coding in better ways. One of the things that hasn’t been talked about much is the privacy thing, the privacy angle. Essentially your browser is talking back to Microsoft in Redmond every time you look at a page. So I wonder, I’m a little concerned about this. I can understand why Microsoft do it, and I can understand why they want to try to find a way of not upsetting their core marketplace. And Chris Wilson, who’s a friend of mine and head of the IE team, wrote on Twitter, “Well can you think of a better idea for our customers, so that they don’t think,” I’m paraphrasing here, “so that they don’t think that we’ve broken the web when we launch a new browser?” And my answer to that is – it’s not your problem! If you make the browser, if Microsoft make the browser the best they can possibly make it, with the best of their efforts, and they are really smart people, then if websites break in IE8 that’s not their problem! It’s a problem for people like me, and it’s a problem for website owners and web designers that need to make their sites work in IE8. So I think, again, Microsoft are kind of barking up the wrong tree, but I can see why they have to think that they do it.

Ryan: Okay, well IE8 is also missing a few of the other more popular CSS3 selectors that are available in other browsers, like border-radius and things like that. Is this a setback for CSS3?

Andy: No, I mean it’s a shame that Microsoft haven’t introduced more of the CSS3 features to date, it’s frustrating for me because I do like to do the whole progressive enhancement/progressive enrichment type of thing, that I can’t have something that looks fantastic in Safari or Firefox, or possibly Opera, looking as good in the browser that obviously most people use. But I think that there’s a bigger issue here in that there’s a technique available for browser makers, to implement some not quite ready features of CSS3 at the time that they choose. That’s this whole kind of “-moz, -webkit” thing. And it’s a very good way, it was designed obviously for browser makers to test implementations of CSS3 properties so that then they wouldn’t break when they switch to the real thing. So if you do –moz border-radius, you could then switch to border-radius and it would do the same thing. So it’s a great way for people to be able to test these features. The interesting thing, though, and this is the wider issue, is that there’s no strategic plan, either from the browser makers or, most importantly, from the CSS working group, where they plan in a timetable implementation of these new features. Now we’re not talking about the big design of CSS, and when are we going to get new layout features and things like that, but simple things like for example CSS columns? Webkit implements CSS columns, Mozilla implements CSS columns, but they do it independently, they do it when they want to on their own timetable, and what I’d really like to see is for these browser makers to get together and say “You know what in September, we’re going to introduce these columns across the board, and in October, or in our next release, we’re going to implement this across the board.” I would like to see them working together so that actually we can start to look at different implementations of, for example, columns. We can look at them in Firefox and we can look at them in Webkit, and we can go “He gets it right, that one’s slightly wrong” and then they’ve got a playing field to work on. And it’s much wider than the overall kind of “Is IE going to implement this or not?” The wider issue there, as I keep going on about over the years, is the whole process of developing CSS3 and the role of the working group.

Ryan: Yeah, it’d be nice if they’d collaborate on more things, not just CSS! So there are some new government guidelines in place which you blogged about recently for cross-browser testing. Is this going to affect the way you approach building websites, especially now that IE8’s coming out, and with looking at IE6 and all that. Are the guidelines going to affect you in any way?

Andy: Day to day, probably not. First of all, because I don’t build websites for government institutions. I don’t tend to do any kind of public sector stuff, for various reasons. And these are guidelines for government websites. So no, in terms of them affecting me on a day to day basis, no, because irrespective of my clients, I try to push as hard on the CSS progressive enhancement thing as I can. I think it’s very, very interesting and it’s a nice and mature approach that whoever’s drawn up these guidelines is taking, to actually understand that websites don’t need to look the same in every browser, and in fact they shouldn’t look the same in every browser. I think that’s a mature approach, and I think the one thing that these guidelines will do to help me is when, on the rare occasion, I perhaps haven’t explained something properly to a client and they come back to me go, “Do you know what? I’ve looked at this thing in Firefox and Safari, and it’s got these rounded corners on the boxes, but I’m looking at it in IE7, and they don’t have rounded corners. Why is this?” And then the whole topic of progressive enhancement comes up, and sometimes people get it, and sometimes people don’t. But actually having something there as a little bit of a thing in your armory, to be able to say, “You know what, websites aren’t supposed to look the same in every browser, and if you need more than my opinion on that, then take a look at these government guidelines.” Then yeah, I think that’s really, really good news for people who want to take this approach with CSS.

Ryan: Ok, that’s great! Thanks for coming on the show, and good talking to you.

Andy: Yep, my pleasure, nice to talk to a northerner for once, rather than that soft southerner that I sometimes get to speak to.

Ryan: Haha, okay, thank you very much.

Andy: He’s naught but a shandy drinker, you know that!

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Ryan: He is but a shandy drinker.

Andy: Take care, see ya.

Thanks goes to Jason Rhodes for transcribing this interview.

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Listeners feedback:

Should the web team sit under marketing?

Michael from Leeds recent me the following email which I want to share with you. I am not sure I agree with everything he says, but he puts together a good argument and I thought that was worth sharing.

I just wanted to drop you a line about your blogpost, 10 harsh truths about corporate websites that you featured on your podcast as well. I was sat listening to that and wanted to pick up on harsh truth #1.

You and Marcus were debating the issue of separate web divisions and whether web responsibility should lie within IT, marketing or your preferred option of a separate web division.

There is no doubt in my mind that a corporate website has to remain the responsibility of the marketing department. There is no other place for it.

The role of marketing is to assess a market and identify a need. Marketing then drives product development and the positioning of the product, developing the messages that convey what the product or service does. The final step is to choose through which channels these messages are best put in front of the target audience.

The website is part of that communication mix. The website for any business needs to be created with a view to acknowledging that a problem exists and convincing the visitor that it has a solution. It then needs to convince that visitor to act. Where else then can the website sit? Who else should be approving the messages the website conveys?

Where I think you guys are coming from (and your experience is not one that is alien to me after over ten years in digital on the agency side) is this. Often the person in marketing responsible for the website doesn’t have the knowledge, vision, experience or perhaps understanding to brief, specify, approve or even give a valid opinion on whether a website does the job. That is a problem with marketing, and not a reason to set up a separate web division.

I believe wholeheartedly that marketing needs a digital specialist within it. If a website is to be developed in-house then a specialist team (certainly not in IT) should be developed, but responsibility for the website needs to remain under the control of marketing. Just because someone in marketing hasn’t done a TV commercial before doesn’t mean that IT should handle that project!!

Even in seemingly non-commercial websites such as charities or universities there is a communication message and the comms team (marketing) is still responsible for the story and positioning.

My feeling therefore is that if a client doesn’t have the skills in marketing it is beholden on us as the agency to guide them through the process. I’m sorry to say though that many web agencies have a lack of marketing skills and can’t relate to the marketing team.

If you need finally convincing about this, think back to the copy interview you did with Relly in issue #154. In writing copy for the web and indeed for any medium Relly needs to understand what a product or service can do. She will be guided by a brief from marketing, not IT, not the web team. As an integrated agency we have five copywriters and the words are the message, the visual is the support and the dramatisation of that message. The copywriter is a key member of our web team.

Hope you find these thoughts interesting.

I debated as to whether I should respond to what Michael has written. In the end I decided not to. I want to leave it to you guys to decide what you think. In either case it is probably something we will be unable to influence, so to a large degree the debate is academic. Nevertheless Michael makes some good points which I can respect.

Keeping it simple

The second listener contribution this week is from Oliver in Kent. He writes:

One of my latest clients (I won’t mention who) has the website from hell. It is far too complicated and full of pointless unintelligible content. I have tried to encourage him to simplify things but with little success. You have spoken about simplicity before, but I was wondering if you might be able to provide some advice on how to get this client to throw out some of his pointless content.

It is a good question and needs answering in 3 ways. You need to understand the lure of complexity, how to identify it and finally how to go about reducing it.

In fact this questions led to a blog post entitled ‘3 secrets to simplicity‘.

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