The new IE8 version targeting switch, announced on IEBlog and A List Apart, has been the talk of the web. Some web standards experts, like Eric Meyer and Jeffrey Zeldman see the switch in a positive light. Others, including Dean Edwards, Robert O’Callahan and Anne van Kesteren think the proposal is a bad idea.
We don’t talk much about what other browsers are doing on this blog. While we’re happy to collaborate on web standards and testing, and sometimes share a little friendly rivalry, we try to keep our focus on making the best Web browser engine we can, not on the competition. So we’re not going to give in-depth commentary on the IE team’s decision. Straddling compatibility and Web standards is a tough job requiring tough choices.
However, some have asked if other browser engines, including WebKit, would adopt a similar version switch. For example, the original announcement asks, “I, for one, hope other browser vendors join Microsoft in implementing this functionality.” I can’t make any definitive statement for all time, but such an approach does not seem like a good idea to us currently. Why, you may ask? There are a few reasons.
Mode Switches in WebKit
WebKit, like most browser engines, has a quirks mode that is triggered by certain old HTML doctypes, or lack of a doctype declaration in text/html. Documents with newer or unknown doctypes, or sent as XML, are processed in standards mode. Like Mozilla and Opera, we apply only a limited set of nonstandard behaviors in quirks mode, and otherwise fix bugs across both modes, if they do not have a specific significant impact on Web compatibility. This is in contrast to the IE approach of completely freezing old behavior in quirks mode.
We actually have a few modes besides that. A handful of doctypes trigger what is called “almost standards mode”, which is standards mode with one minor deviation, mainly affecting how images lay out in table cells; this is copied from Mozilla. In addition, we have a few rendering and DOM differences between documents served with an XML MIME type and those served with an HTML MIME type, but we are trying to reduce these over time. And finally, we have a Dashboard compatibility mode that has a few extra quirks beyond quirks mode, to handle Dashboard widgets that were coded to depend on old WebKit bugs.
As you can see, this is quite a few modes already. Having lots of modes raises a number of challenges for maintaining the engine.
First, the more different modes there are, the harder it is to fully test the engine. We have an aggressive approach to automated testing, and our layout tests often find critical problems before they are shipped or even checked in. Having more modes means many things need to be tested in multiple modes. So that’s more tests, more time for developers to run the test suite, and more chances of missing code coverage, especially when different modes interact.
Second, implementing mode switches hurts hackability of the code. Hackability is one of our core project goals. It’s part of the reason new contributors can dive in quickly, and enables us to rapidly develop new features, while improving performance, stability, and security.
There’s two plausible ways to add more modes. One is to make all engine changes conditional on a version flag. Another is to have a whole second copy of the layout code. Either would be a huge additional barrier to entry for developers, and would make it harder to maintain the code.
So, bottom line, we’d like to see fewer modes, not more.
In addition to maintainability, an important feature of the WebKit engine is the ease with which it is deployed on limited-capability devices such as mobile phones. Some of the more prominent examples include Nokia’s S60 Browser, Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch, and Google’s Android platform. These and other products all include a full-powered version of WebKit, no compromises.
However, having more mode switches cuts against this. The extra code (possibly whole extra copies of the engine, at the very least a whole lot of extra if statements) would be a significant burden on mobile devices. It’s not very well aligned with our mission of staying lean and mean.
Commitment to Standards and Interoperability
Yet another reason we feel more mode switches are not a good idea for WebKit is our commitment to Web standards, and to interoperability with other browsers. We strongly believe that Web standards are the path forward for interoperability, and we work closely with Web standards groups and other browser vendors to align behavior.
Part of this commitment is delivering standards-compliant behavior out of the box. We don’t ask you to set a special preference, or to add extra markup to your web page, or anything else beyond the long established standards mode switch. That means WebKit can truly pass standards-based tests like Acid2 and someday the forthcoming Acid3, and we’ll work more like other standards-based browsers over time. In general, web developers are happy to get automatic ever-advancing standards support from our engine, and indeed our support for advanced CSS3 properties has unleashed a wave of creativity in iPhone web apps.
Reducing Engine Fragmentation
Another key reason to avoid more modes is to reduce the number of different compatibility profiles that web content authors have to deal with. With many different vendors shipping WebKit-based products, we rely a lot on the fact that uptake of WebKit-based browsers is really fast. Already many web developers are focusing primarily on Safari 3 and not Safari 2, because in only a few months the majority of users have upgraded.
But locking in compatibility would mean you have to think about the compatibility profiles of old browsers a lot longer. And no one wants to think about the state of the engine in Safari 2 – I sure don’t! We made thousands of fixes and improvements and those fixes deserve to stick.
We Don’t Really Need It
Finally, while we sympathize with the tough road that the IE team has to travel to achieve a high degree of standards compliance, we haven’t really experienced the same problem. The IE team has mentioned severe negative feedback on the IE7 release, due to sites expecting standards behavior from most browsers, but IE6 bugs from IE.
But WebKit already has a high degree of standards compliance. And we are not in the enviable but tough position of being the most widely used browser. The fixes we do for standards compliance rarely cause widespread destruction, and when they do, it’s often a sign that the standards themselves may need revision. We do not get complaints from web content authors about their sites breaking, on the contrary we get a lot of praise for each version of the engine handling web sites better.
So, in conclusion, we don’t see a great need to implement version targeting in Safari. We think maintaining multiple versions of the engine would have many downsides for us and little upside. The IE team is, of course, under different constraints and free to make their own choices.