Last week Microsoft finally released an alpha of its brand new browser. Currently known as Spartan (a code name that could very well be part of its final title), it's Microsoft's long-awaited departure from Internet Explorer (IE). While much can be said about the elaborate browser switch, there was something in the inevitable press coverage and ensuing discussions that greatly disappointed me. Something I think we as a community of front-end professionals should be more aware of.
A Quick Internet Explorer Recap
Up until a few years ago, the majority of people associated the IE logo with "the internet", not even realizing that it was just an app like any other and alternatives could be used. Wanted to access the world wide web? Just click the blue E with the swirl. IE was the only browser they knew and for a while (early 2000s) IE was effectively the only browser that mattered.
The result was disastrous. Microsoft became sloppy and failed to keep their browser (IE6 at that time) in shape, dragging their feet for nearly 5 years before they finally came with a significant update. In the meantime Firefox was gaining ground and when Chrome finally arrived Microsoft was hopelessly behind. IE became the bane of every web developer out there and that negative image started to spread. When Microsoft finally arrived with IE7, it was too little, too late.
For the next couple of years Microsoft would work hard to make Internet Explorer competitive again. They actually did a pretty good job, but the damage was done. Even though their market share remained respectable, the IE brand was tarnished and the slow update cycle of users (often companies) created too many extra hurdles for developers who wanted to build modern websites. And so Spartan was born.
My Browser Is Bigger Than Yours
Between 2005 and 2010 our industry changed a lot. Amidst the rekindled love for web standard, the birth of html5 and the rise of Apple and Google, webkit rose up to become the promised land of front-end development. An open-source rendering engine backed by Apple and Google that pushed the web forward, what more could you ask for? If you wanted to hang with the cool kids, team webkit was the one you had to support.
People like to pick sides. The Beatles vs The Rolling Stones, Nintendo vs Sega, Apple vs Google ... if there are least two dominating brands within the same field you can be sure you won't find too many "oh, but they're both great"s flying around. Instead people pick a team and they start rooting for all they're worth. There's really no difference with picking a favorite sports team, it's just a little nerdier.
To be clear, here's nothing inherently wrong with that. When kept in check it's good mindless fun and it keeps people occupied. It can even be helpful, as the overwhelming support for webkit demonstrated. But when people start talking trash and turn into hooligans, things can turn sour real quick. There's a fine line between playfully throwing jabs between opposite sides and willfully wanting to destroy a brand's reputation.
The War Is Over
Reading various articles about Spartan (both from inside and outside the community) and browsing through a couple of comment threads made me realize that many people are still stuck in their pre-2010 mindset. Oblivious to what has changed over the past 5 years, they keep blabbering about Internet Explorer needing to ditch their own rendering engine and adopt webkit instead. They keep dissing IE for being slow and behind the times. They keep talking about IE's long tail as if other browsers aren't experiencing very similar problems. The worst comments even brought up IE6's lack of transparent PNG support. Talk about old sores.
The reality is that IE has caught up with the rest. No, it's not the ultimate browser out there, but so aren't its alternatives. Chrome has become a RAM hog and its rapid upgrade cycle has made it more unstable than it needs to be. Opera is notoriously bad with plugins and crashes more than it should. Firefox has become sluggish and is fighting for relevance and Safari has littered webkit with Mac-only fixes while still struggling to deliver decent position:fixed support.
The sad thing is that most people, even within the web development community, seem to be ignoring these problems. They're still just anti-IE and bashing away as if it was 2005. Now I'm not feeling sad for Microsoft, they pretty much deserved what happened to them and a company that large really doesn't need my pity. But to see other browsers vendors left largely uncriticized for the crap they're pulling is not good at all. It's the exact same lenience that led to the disaster that was IE6 and it made our job that much worse.
The moral of the story is that people don't seem to learn from past mistakes. All the webkit crew did was band together to eradicate a bad browser, but instead of understanding what went wrong they just picked sides and settled into their roles. It's this exact lack of critical thinking that made IE6 into a death trap.
To see these sentiments live on in the tech press is not all that strange, after all they only mimic the vibes they pick up from a particular field. But to see it still happening inside the web development community is shameful at best, lazy, unprofessional and irresponsible at worst. Not that people can't pick a favorite browser and engage in some jolly banter with the opposite sides, but there's a time and place for that. In the end it's necessary to keep an open mind and to be able to pass fair judgement, not in the least because the browser is one of the most essential tools of our field.
Current-day browsers all have their strengths and weaknesses. They deserve praise for doing a good job and they deserve to be criticized when they're dropping the ball. It's important we give them a fair shot because in the end, we're the ones that have to deal with them.