In case you weren't sure, Microsoft wants you to really, really understand that Internet Explorer 10 isn't just any old update to the much-maligned browser. The latest example: "modern.IE," a set of tools to help Web developers that the company announced today.
"It's still too hard to test sites across the different OSes and browsers," Ryan Gavin, Internet Explorer's general manager, said in a phone interview with CNET yesterday. "On our part, we can encourage best practices. We know we can do better here, so we're providing the tools and support so that developers spend more of their time innovating and less of their time testing."
"More time innovating, less time testing" was Gavin's watch-phrase of the day, something he repeated throughout our conversation. Microsoft clearly believes that modern.IE's toolset will appeal to developers.
Some developers who have used pre-release versions of the service were impressed with modern.IE.
Rachel Andrew, managing director of Web development company Edgeofmyseat.com, said to me in an e-mail: "I'm a Mac and Linux desktop user. I have Windows laptops for testing, but haven't used Windows for anything else for many years. I feel as if Microsoft [has] recognized, with modern.IE, that this is the case for a lot of Web designers and developers. Instead of trying to persuade us to use Windows, the site gives us a whole bunch of ways to test sites from our platform of choice, to ensure that people who visit our sites using Windows and IE get a great experience."
Modern.IE appears to be quite simple to use. Drop a URL into the scanning tool text field, and it kicks back a report with suggestions on how to improve your site, split into three categories. The first is a long-overdue bit of housekeeping that breaks down problems that have arisen from supporting legacy versions of Internet Explorer.
Microsoft is putting money and manpower behind modern.IE. Gavin explained that if the tool finds known bugs or issues with a site, the tool will assign them bug IDs and allow the developers to request access to the IE engineering team. "We'll work with you on those specific bugs," he said. "Right now, we're running on a 48-hour turnaround from the e-mail to when we get back to you."
The modern.IE scanner also will pick up on other problems that developers can fix on their own. This includes things like outdated jQuery frameworks, which is important since 91 percent of developers now use jQuery, Gavin said. In this case, the report would recommend the next compatible version of jQuery to minimize testing.
Other problems the scanner will look for include common compatibility issues, CSS prefixes, database library issues, conditional comments, and browser detection including legacy versions of IE instead of the now-preferred feature detection. "Forty percent of the top 5,000 sites [by traffic and volume] are using outdated libraries," Gavin said.
The second component to the modern.IE report is a set of virtual testing tools for making it easier to update and maintain standards. To that end, Microsoft is working in conjunction with browser-testing emulator BrowserStack to test any combination of hardware, operating system, and browser. Usually, the service runs around $20 per month, Gavin said, but Microsoft will cover the first three months.
Microsoft has built Firefox and Chrome add-ons for BrowserStack to provide one-click access to the service, streamlining its use.
Lea Verou, who works on developer relations at the Web standards organization W3C, praised the inclusion of BrowserStack. "Most of [modern.IE's] tools are useful in general, not just for IE. For example, the free three-month BrowserStack subscription can be used to test in a number of desktop and mobile browsers, not just IE. Also, their tool for checking mistakes and omissions in websites isn't particularly IE focused in the things it checks (with 1-2 exceptions if I recall correctly)," she said in an e-mail.
The third component in the modern.IE report is a suggestion of best coding practices going forward. While Gavin cautioned that the recommendations cannot encompass every aspect of coding for the modern Web, he did say that if developers follow Microsoft's suggestions, they will "avoid 99 percent of the coding problems."
The list of recommendations has some heft behind it, too. It's being curated by Dave Methvin, president of the jQuery Foundation, and Rey Bango, a technical evangelist at Microsoft and former member of the jQuery Project.
Andrew noted that the quality of modern.IE's suggestions appeared to be quite good during her use of the service. "In general, the advice I have seen on the site is good, promoting best practice generally, rather than in a browser specific way, and also offering ways to test more easily on a [Microsoft] platform. As someone who writes about this stuff I'll be glad of having one place to point people to as a resource for testing in IE -- rather than hunting around looking for where to download the old IE VMs (virtual machines)," she said.
Still, Microsoft has a long way to go to make up for a decade of lost time and squandered goodwill. Jonathan Snook, an internationally recognized expert on Web development and design, said to CNET in an e-mail that Microsoft has an uphill war to wage when it comes to how developers and others perceive the browser. "Unfortunately, there's a lot of people that still hold a grudge against Microsoft. This is evident in almost any post on the IE blog. Many are jaded and feel that Microsoft is still moving too slow and not getting ahead of the curve enough. Chrome and Firefox can and do churn out new features (and new browser versions) with relative ease," he said.
Verou shared that sentiment. "I can't predict what reaction developers will have, because MS is still struggling to shake off the bad press a decade of IE6 brought, but I think offering such useful tools for free is a very good move," she said.
"We're going to be iterating and improving this over time," Gavin said. "We're looking for developer feedback to continue to make this useful." Whether developers are willing to forgive Microsoft for its previous heavy-handed approach to Web development is another story entirely.
Updated at 8:58 a.m. PDT with comments from Web developers.