The question must seem absurd. After all, Microsoft is a member of the W3C and an active participant in the development of web standards. Each new Microsoft product announcement seems to include more standards compliant buzzwords than the last. True, Microsoft doesn’t always deliver complete standards compliance, but nobody’s perfect. At least they’re trying. Or are they?
While Microsoft may pay lip service to web standards, a look at their product line suggests they have no interest in supporting the standards they’ve helped create. Face it, xHTML and CSS just aren’t as sexy as .Net and web services. Microsoft clearly has other priorities and a closer investigation of the facts seems to indicate that support for web standards is hardly a blip on their corporate radar.
Allow me to elaborate with a few examples:
Microsoft.com: Any discussion about Microsoft’s support for web standards should begin with their corporate website. If Microsoft cared about web standards, you would expect them to use those standards on their own website. You’d probably even expect their home page to validate (or at least come close). Instead, Microsoft can’t even be bothered to declare a doctype.
I realize valid HTML is a controversial topic. We all know how hard it is to keep a site valid. One day your site validates, the next day some stray entity or attribute throws your site out of compliance. My point is that those of us who are serious about web standards make an effort. Microsoft’s failure to declare a doctype on their home page indicates they’ve made no effort.
Dig deeper into the source code of Microsoft.com and you’ll find one coding atrocity after another (font tags, nested tables, and embedded images that simulate a styled list, etc.). It’s as if the developers of Microsoft.com have no clue what CSS is, let alone how to use it. To Microsoft’s credit, they seem to be using their own tools to create and maintain their website. My problem with those tools is that they encourage the worst sort of design habits. They certainly don’t encourage the use of web standards. Which leads me to . . .
FrontPage: Web professionals don’t take FrontPage seriously — it’s a fact. The problem is that much of the rest of the world views FrontPage as the most cost effective way to manage a website. Managers love it because “it’s so easy anyone can use it”. Organizations buy the marketing hype without the slightest concern for the code FrontPage is generating (“It’s Microsoft, it must be compatible”). Since the product ships with some versions of Microsoft Office, FrontPage has more or less become the de facto standard for managing departmental websites. Unfortunately, most organizations don’t realize what they’ve gotten themselves into until they try to migrate their legacy FrontPage website to a shiny new content management system. There’s simply no good way to automate this sort of conversion. Suddenly FrontPage doesn’t seem like such a bargain.
Microsoft’s marketing machine boasts about FrontPage 2003’s powerful code editing mode, professional design tools, and database integration. Sounds great. How about a tool that creates valid xHTML and encourages novice content authors to format their pages using CSS and semantic markup instead of font tags? As it is, FrontPage seems to invite novice web authors to do the wrong thing at every possible opportunity. FrontPage has enabled so many departmental webmasters to create so much bad HTML that I fear we’ll never fully recover from the damage that’s been done. Microsoft is directly responsible for this.
Visual Studio: As one developer on Microsoft’s Channel 9 blog recently noted about Visual Studio, “creating xHTML compliant websites is a pain in the ASP.net”. In the know Microsoft developers speak in hushed tones about ‘Whidbey’, the next generation .Net development tool that will reportedly support xHTML and CSS (no, these same insiders don’t seem to think it’s strange that the current set of tools don’t already support web standards). In the meantime, the current generation of Microsoft’s professional development tools seem to be no better than their consumer tools are at supporting web standards. .Net developers seem perfectly happy with a tool that might render an unordered list as a table (Microsoft in general seems to have some strange aversion to unordered lists).
To be fair, it seems that Microsoft is attempting to address these inadequacies, but one suspects that unless the new tools are absolutely foolproof, it’ll be mighty difficult to train developers to change their way of thinking. After all, Microsoft’s website doesn’t validate — so why should mine? Then there’s all that legacy code to think about. It’s extremely unlikely that the new Studio product will provide much assistance in migrating bloated and invalid code from previous versions.
Microsoft Word: I’ve written at length on a couple of occasions about Microsoft Word’s inability to easily export documents to clean xHTML. If you’re using a content management system with a built-in WYSIWYG editor, it’s likely that a simple cut-and-paste from Word into your article editing page will produce undesirable results when that content is published within a standards compliant website. One has to wonder if it’s really all that difficult to generate clean xHTML from MS Word. Just once I’d like to see Clippy tapping on my monitor asking me if I want clean xHTML. Something tells me this won’t happen in my lifetime.
Internet Explorer. Standards compliant web developers are well aware of the myriad of hacks required to effectively use web standards in the most popular web browser on the planet. It’s as if Microsoft takes pleasure in making the simplest tasks near impossible. Search Google for Interent Explorer CSS Hacks and you’ll find tens of thousands of pages devoted to working around Microsoft’s browser. It’s been noted that these same hacks will likely come back to haunt us all at some point in the future. It seems quite apparent that IE‘s CSS quirks are greatly responsible for many web developers’ failure to embrace xHTML and CSS as the standard method for developing websites. IE’s poor support for standards has given a generation of web designers the impression that the standards are broken.
If Opera and Mozilla are capable of supporting web standards, why can’t Microsoft? In fact, it seems like small, independent software developers and the Open Source movement are leading the way, while Microsoft is barely keeping pace, despite its presence in the organization responsible for developing these standards. The best CSS editors on the market are TopStyle from Bradbury Software and Style Master from WestCiv. How is it that independents with limited resources are producing better standards based tools than the richest corporation on the planet? Could it be that Microsoft views web standards as a threat? After all, web standards imply a cross-platform, cross-application document format. One of the prime strategies Microsoft used to achieve their dominant market position is the proprietary file format. Web standards are clearly a threat to proprietary file formats.
It’s hard to say exactly what Microsoft’s problem might be. What are we to believe? Either Microsoft is hopelessly behind in their support of web standards, or they’re subverting standards to protect their market share. Or maybe Bill Gate secretly loves table-based layouts (he does seem to fit the profile). Some insiders have suggested that the company has been so obsessed with security issues for the past couple of years that they’ve lost touch with everything else. To me, that seems like the most unlikely scenario.
Regardless of what Microsoft’s excuse may be, the fact is that the current incarnation of their product line lacks any meaningful support for web standards, something that they will have to face head on as they move forward with their recently publicized accessibility initiative. They can’t achieve their goals without addressing the problems they’ve created — and the tools they’ll be using will not help. Considering Microsoft’s dominance in the marketplace, it’s remarkable that the standards movement has made as much progress as it has in the past couple of years.