Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.


Posted on 25 January 2008 15 comments

Article illustration for Catastroph-IE

Tuesday was an eventful day for the web standards community. For those who don’t know, Aaron Gustafson posted an article on A List Apart about the new site versioning ‘feaure’ that will be in IE8; a meta tag (to define which version of the IE rendering engine should be used) that looks a little bit like this:

<meta http-equiv="X-UA-Compatible" content="IE=8" />

Looks fairly innocent, doesn’t it? But it’s caused something of an outrage for the standards crowd, because with it comes the announcement that if no rendering engine is explicitly stated, it will use IE7’s by default. Yep, that’s right: no matter what CSS features are supported by IE8, 9, 10, etc. in the future, your site will only be rendered with the (relatively poor) IE7 engine if you fail to include this tag.

So what are your thoughts on this? This post has been sitting in my ‘drafts’ folder for a few days and is therefore now a bit late in the game, so rather than repeat things that have already been said by people who have much more authority on the subject than me, I thought I’d summarise some of what these guys have been saying and point you in the direction of their blogs…

Blow by blow

Jeremy was one of the first on the scene and quite sensibly says that “the X-UA-Compatible header is a great idea. It’s great for Microsoft. It’s great for Microsoft’s customers. But the default behaviour is wrong, wrong, wrong!”

Drew wrote a fairly diplomatic post on behalf of WaSP, although he also made the same point as Jeremy about only some members of WaSP being involved in the decision-making process with Microsoft. However, in their defence, he reminded us that “a great deal of thought and research by people who know what web standards development means has gone into this.”

Snook offered one of the most positive responses by reminding us that “as each new browser comes out and fixes bugs from older versions, our sites need to be revisited. Until we have a chance to do so, our sites shouldn’t break.”

Andy also fairly defends the decisions that brought this tag into existence, but goes on to point out that “clueless developers won’t know about this behaviour so every new site they build will automatically be rendered as IE7. Clued-up developers will use this as an excuse to freeze support for IE and turn their attentions to better browsers.” Good point!

For the technological reasons why this might be a bad idea even for Microsoft themselves, have a look at Robert O’Callahan’s post.

Kyle summed the situation up quite nicely by saying that “this feels like yet another band-aid on a wound that has become infected already.” Well said, man.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the comments on each of these blogs offer further insight and a much deeper discussion into this issue than the posts alone. All worth a read, if you have the time. Oh, and be sure to check out Microsoft’s official word on passing the Acid 2 Test.

Conclusion? Nah!

It’s impossible to really conclude anything yet; mainly because IE8 is still a long way off, and secondly because I’ve heard that the other browser manufacturers are not going to support the version-switching tag (I can’t remember where I heard that. Maybe it was via Twitter. Anyone got a reference?).

What’s more, it was revealed by Chris Wilson that the HTML5 doctype will not need the meta tag (thank you Snook, via John Resig), so maybe there’s hope yet… depending on how the whole HTML5 vs. XHTML2 war pans out, of course. And let’s not forget that that’s potentially a much bigger issue!

I think the whole thing is best summed up by this rather amusing offering from Kate Bolin. ;)

What does anyone else think?


  1. Kyle Meyer

    Kyle Meyer

    25 January 2008 @ 10:24PM #

    Your article title trumps mine by a landslide. Great pun. :P

    Much of the discussion of other browser manufacturer’s not supporting the element come from comments in some of the other blog posts. John Resig’s post has some excellent discussions of other browser vendors in the comments.

  2. Jacklyn


    25 January 2008 @ 11:01PM #

    I’m not really sure how I feel about it yet, it’s too early to tell. At first I was angry like most people were, but when gReader seemed to explode with posts about it, my opinion started to change. I can see both good and bad in it.

    Eric Meyer’s follow up post about the reaction was a nice summary and the discussion is intelligent. I suggest checking it out if you have the time.

  3. Hamish M

    Hamish M

    25 January 2008 @ 11:25PM #

    Yeah this issue made for one crazy week — though I think the HTML 5 Doctype news calmed the storm a bit. Great summary Elliot.

  4. kevadamson


    25 January 2008 @ 11:53PM #

    Unfortunately, the web is suffering from the ie6 aftershock. The problem is there. It exists and we have to accept it.

    For me, I think that the X-UA idea sounds like a solution that will work for the majority: users, clients and developers of ranging abilities and expertise.

    Also, If anything, I think it’s putting control back in the hands of the developer.

    It’s certainly not going to be the death of progress in terms of web standards, as a few seem to be screaming in their responses. Lets be rational here: If IE6, back in the day, with a 98% market share, wasn’t a big enough to halt where we’re at today, I certainly don’t think a meta tag will slow things up too much!

    As always, I enjoyed the calming, rational and common sense words of the mighty Zeldman on the subject …

  5. Ruth


    26 January 2008 @ 12:35AM #

    For a gal like me (old dog learning new tricks or as Andy puts it – clueless), this sort of news brings about two responses: 1 – oh crap, another thing to learn, and 2 – wonderful, I understand what they’re saying. In my experience with such future forward announcements on any subject, something changes before it hits the stores. A lot of time here to act and react before it’s in stone.

  6. Tom Hoad

    Tom Hoad

    26 January 2008 @ 12:42AM #

    Why isn’t IE standards-compliant (in the sense that Firefox and Safari are, albeit not 100%)?

    Why aren’t Microsoft interested in web standards?

  7. Sean Delaney

    Sean Delaney

    26 January 2008 @ 12:45AM #

    I think it is complete ridiculous and its typical “Microslop” trying to rule everything again… As a Web Developer It makes me angry!

  8. Matt Packer

    Matt Packer

    26 January 2008 @ 01:11AM #

    1 step forward, 2 steps back.. It’s been the Microsoft way since Windows ME sucked and blew..

  9. Grant


    26 January 2008 @ 03:36AM #

    i had a bad feeling this was the way they were going to handle things when i first watched the video that accompanied their post on passing the acid2 test – just the fact that they mentioned it passed in standards mode suggested that other modes would be available and i wondered what the default would be.

    however, i think it shows more about microsoft’s philosophy than anything else – they’ve been brought kicking and screaming into standards existence and they’re determined to be backwards compatible with their old ways as if that almost validates the way they’ve handled IE.

    it’s a bit painful for us web folks and another thing to keep track of, but in the long run i think MS just might backward compatiblize their way out of existence – if vista is any indication they’re already firmly headed down that road.

  10. Tim Kadlec

    Tim Kadlec

    26 January 2008 @ 03:49AM #

    I agree with Jeremy Keith on this – it isn’t so much the idea that is wrong, but the way it is handled by default.

    And I don’t know if this is what you were talking about or not, but there are some applicable comments from various people working with the other major browsers at this site.

  11. Dominik Lenk

    Dominik Lenk

    26 January 2008 @ 06:24PM #

    Right now most sites are still suffering from IE7 CSS issues. Web-developers seem to have come to the conclusion that IE is a the ‘bad browser’, no matter how well it is updated. At the moment this is almost certainly true, yet I believe that we should all wait and keep our mouth shut until IE8 is released.

    I also agree with Snook: The new meta tag allows developers to choose when they update a site, so that it is compatible with the new technology. I think that Microsoft might be able to prevent quite a few pages breaking when the finally introduce their ‘new’ browser. (Let’s hope it actually has some proper CSS support this time, so that we are actually updating anything at all.)

  12. Jermayn Parker

    Jermayn Parker

    29 January 2008 @ 11:29AM #

    As everyone has said, a well written article wrapping up what is happening…

    Im still sitting on the fence and will just wait and see what happens

  13. Fullman


    05 March 2008 @ 02:05AM #

    Hey Elliot, it’s Chris Fullman, I met you at FOWA by the Microsoft table before the conference started. Hope all is well, and awesome site man, I love the background!

    Anyways, I’m sure you probably know about this already, but in case you didn’t, MS reversed this decision and it was announced on the IE blog yesterday. Good to hear enough pressure from the developers can still affect some changes with IE. :)

  14. Jason Marsh - Website Designer

    Jason Marsh - Website Designer

    24 April 2008 @ 07:04PM #

    Call me paranoid but, Microsoft seems to have done it again? There creative team has dreampt up ways of annoying web developers once again!

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