This Is Not Happening!
The above photo was taken at the exact moment when a website designer, having finished a complex new site for a client, belatedly thought to check how it displayed in Internet Explorer 6. Been there, lately?
I'm in the relatively lucky position of maintaining a site that dates back to 2001 and hence is a rich stew of table-based and Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) layout. Having created my first site in 1995, I'm one of those annoying old guys who are still comfortable hand coding pages with HomeSite. But in recent years, the compelling advantages of CSS have been such that I've tried valiantly to move away from outdated techniques by embracing modern conceptions of page creation. And yet, like many others, I've been frustrated by an inability to resolve the layout capabilities of CSS with the realities of browser marketshare.
The fact is, after all these years we're still at the awkward point where to really embrace CSS it's necessary to employ complex, time-wasting, fragile kludges and hacks to ensure that anything but the simplest layout displays reliably in the majority of browsers. So my hat is off to commercial designers with demanding clients, who every day have to balance the need to create sophisticated pages without spending countless hours to ensure they display predictably for the majority of visitors. The good news? According to a recently-published SitePoint book with the provocative title of Everything You Know About CSS Is Wrong!, this nightmare may end in the foreseeable future, thanks to the arrival of Internet Explorer 8. You in the back, stop laughing.
In the space of 116 pages, authors Rachel Andrew and Kevin Yank make the case that IE 8 is, in fact, the Holy Grail that will finally let us turn our backs on employing legacy techniques, CSS tricks (think floating and absolute positioning) and extra code or stylesheets to ensure broad browser compatibility. You may scoff but this giant step forward will be due to IE 8's loving embrace of the CSS2 spec, as proved by its ability to pass the Acid2 test. This means that it will join other major browsers in being to support the CSS
display property, thereby making it finally possible for us to create sophisticated, grid-based layouts. Whew! It only took 15 years.
While the release of IE 8 promises much, we'll still be faced for an indeterminate period with those using earlier versions. The authors provide several approaches to combining the benefits of fresh CSS techniques with the realities of old browsers, but at this point my head began to hurt. Their position is that it's the responsibility of site designers to support the new CSS capabilities, no matter what the extra coding requirements: "When we told Microsoft we needed it to improve Internet Explorer, we were making a bargain with the software giant: 'You improve the browser to make our lives easier, and we'll build the sites that take full advantage of it, giving your users a reason to upgrade.' Microsoft has done its part, now it's our turn."
That's certainly an altruistic stance and it will be interesting seeing how the design community responds to the release of IE 8. Meanwhile, I can recommend Everything You Know as a worthwhile recap of what has led us to this point and a valuable grounding for what the future might hold. An extract on Graphics.com provides a good sense of the authors' position. If they're correct, photos like the one above will someday be a distant memory.