Microsoft plans to issue a "release candidate" of the new standards-driven Internet Explorer 8 early in the first quarter, with final release pegged for the first half of the coming year.
The RC, as it's called, will also add a new feature aimed at making IE8 more transparently handle sites created using differing Web standards, company officials told InternetNews.com today.
When Microsoft releases the RC, the next major version of the company's browser will be all but finished. As long as no "showstopper" bugs are found at the last minute, IE8 will be released to the public.
IE8 will default to supporting the latest Internet standards as promised last winter.
However, there is a catch.
Many existing sites -– perhaps millions -- are not tuned to work with IE8's so-called "super standards" mode. Instead, they have already been tweaked to work correctly with earlier versions IE.
It's part and parcel of a sort of mad cycle around Microsoft's browser releases. As it gains popularity, site developers take advantage of its features and the standards they support. They end up customizing their sites to look best in a particular version of IE – usually the most popular one at the time.
When Microsoft comes out with a newer edition of the browser, supported standards and other technologies go in and out of style, making site developers eventually tweak their sites again or build new sites that take advantage of new features in the newer version.
For that, Microsoft has taken a lot of criticism over the years, and for ignoring Web standards that other vendors support. Now, Microsoft is moving to better support broad standards, but that's producing a problem of a different type – in its default super standards mode IE8 doesn't properly handle many older sites.
That is, increased enforcement of Web standards in super standards mode means that many pre-existing sites will not display correctly, and in some instances may not work at all.
Microsoft has been lobbying Web developers since last winter to update their existing sites to work best in super standards mode – however, with so many sites to modify, even though it's a minor change, company designers decided that another solution was needed as well.
"There are a lot of sites that [have] 'legacy behavior'," Dean Hachamovitch, IE general manager, told InternetNews.com. Although it could constitute a major hassle for users when IE8 comes out, it's the right thing to do, he said.
"It's the right thing for the next billion Web pages," Hachamovitch added.
So what about the billions of tweaked sites that already exist?
"There were high-volume sites like facebook.com, myspace.com, bbc.co.uk, and cnn.com with pages that weren’t working for end-users with IE’s new standards compliant default," said a posting on Microsoft's IE Blog site.
Part of the solution is to keep a publicly-accessible list online that tracks sites that need to have IE8 run in less standard, more backwards compatible modes. Where will the data come from?
"Sites are on this list based on feedback from other IE8 customers: specifically, for what high-volume sites did other users click the Compatibility View button?" the blog post continued.
When the browser visits a site, it looks up to see if it can run in super standards mode or needs a tweaked mode. That way, IE8 will be able to support both older non-conforming sites as well as new standards-conformant ones with the least inconvenience to users. At least that's the idea.
The list will also be constantly updated with those updates transmitted to IE8 in a manner similar to Automatic Updates, the blog post said.