Redmond ignored standards while Internet Explorer was riding high. Now that mobile browsing is all about iOS and Webkit, Microsoft is pushing standards to get back in the game.
Microsoft is very late to the mobile phone & tablet party, which they are just hoping to join with Windows Phone 8 and the Surface tablet. Their browsers don't even show up in lists of usage share. The Android browser is moving ahead, while Mobile Safari and Opera are holding on. In terms of clicks on ads that actually make Web publishers money, Mobile Safari and iOS are well out in front.
A few months back we discussed the effects of a growing browser monoculture in mobile, and Mozilla's push to counter it and preserve open standards in the mobile realm. Both Apple's and Google's mobile browsers are based on the same rendering engine, Webkit. And Apple requires that any browser provided through its app store run on Webkit.
Microsoft's problem in this environment, where its Windows Phone 8 and Surface tablets run Internet Explorer 10, is that developers have coded their Websites and Web apps specifically for Webkit. Microsoft has posted a long (2,500-word) piece explaining how to modify Webkit-tuned code so that IE10 can render it as designed. The steps required range from the trivial to the complex, and Microsoft notes that it is not possible to provide a single cookbook that will handle all cases. Ars Technica boils down the issues somewhat for developers currently focused exclusively on Webkit.
The difficulty for Microsoft is that Webkit-oriented developers have very little incentive to do extra work that might benefit Microsoft's browser. Webkit gets them 90+ percent of their target markets now. IE10 is not even a blip on the chart as yet. When Mozilla argues for Web standards in the mobile world, at least it has the greater good on its side. Microsoft doesn't even have that.
After Microsoft crushed Netscape's browser in the marketplace, in the late 1990s, IE had no real competition on the desktop until Firefox emerged Phoenix-like from Netscape's ashes. The Firefox browser began taking market share from IE, slowly at first from the time it was released in 2004. Apple's Safari and then Google Chrome moved through the door that Firefox had opened, and Chrome caught on quickly on the desktop beginning in 2008. By StatCounter's reckoning, these three browsers have twice the share of all versions of IE on the desktop. Using a different methodology, Net Applications reckons that the three challengers have 44 percent of desktops vs. 53 percent for all versions of Microsoft's browser.
In the first decade of this century, IE version 6, running on Windows XP, flaunted Web standards and went its own way. Developers were forced to code specifically for this browser, because it was so dominant. IE7 was more of the same. IE8 began to nod towards Web standards, but it wasn't until IE9 on Windows 7 that CSS and HTML began working somewhat the same in Microsoft-land as in all other browsers. With Windows 8 and IE10, Microsoft has fully embraced standards. IE10 has been ported back to Windows 7, and soon those users will find their native browser upgraded to IE10. Most of Microsoft's desktops will run a modern, standards-compliant browser for the first time.
I don't know if anyone at Microsoft is humbled by this reversal in the company's fortunes. They should be.