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Technorati Tags: cybersmith, interoperability, IE8.0 mitigation, web site construction, web standards, compatibility
I have been experimenting with Internet Explorer 8.0 beta 2 enough to realize that all of my own web sites are best viewed in compatibility mode, not standards mode. I find it interesting that other browsers, such as Google Chrome, apparently apply that approach automatically, suggesting to me that the IE 8.0 standards mode is going to cause tremors across the web.
The first step to obtaining immediate, successful viewing under IE 8.0, as well as older and different browsers, is to simply mark all of my sites as requiring compatibility mode. That is the least activity that can possibly work. It provides a tremendous breathing room for being more selective, followed eventually by substitution of fully-standard versions of new and heavily-visited web pages on my sites.
Some pages may remain perpetually under compatibility mode, especially since the convergence of web browsers around HTML 5 support will apparently preserve accommodations for legacy pages designed against non-standard browser behaviors.
This post narrates my effort to accomplish site-wide selection of compatibility mode by making simple changes to web-server parameters, not touching any of the web pages at all.
#0. The Story So Far
On installing Internet Explorer 8.0 beta 2, I confirmed that none of my web sites render properly using the default standards-mode rendering. However, my sites render as designed for the past nine years if I view them in compatibility mode.
Although I want to move my high-usage pages to standards-mode over time, I don't want users of Internet 8.0 to have to manually-select compatibility mode when visiting my sites and their blog pages.
What I want now is the simplest step that will advertise to browsers that my pages are all to be viewed in compatibility mode. This will direct the same presentation in IE8.0 as provided by older versions of Internet Explorer and and current browsers (such as Google Chrome) that don't have the IE8.0 standards mode. I can then look at a gradual migration toward having new and high-activity pages be designed for standards-mode viewing while other pages may continue to require compatibility mode indefinitely.
#1. The Simplest First Step That Can Possibly Work
There are ways to have web sites define the required document compatibility without having to touch the existing web pages at all. If I am able to accomplish that, I will have achieved an easy first step:
This is accomplished by convincing the web server for my sites to insert the following custom-header line in the headers of every HTTP response that the server makes:
The HTTP-response lines precede the web page that the web server returns. The browser recognizes all lines before the first empty line as headers. Everything following that empty line is the source for the web page. The browser processes the headers it is designed to recognize and ignores any others.
You can see the headers returned as part of an HTTP request by using utilities such as cURL and WFetch. Here are the headers from my primary web site using a show-headers-only request via the command-line tool, cURL:
2. Satisfying the Prerequisites
The MSDN Article on Defining Document Compatibility describes site-wide compatibility control for two web servers: Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) and Apache HTTP Server 1.3, 2.0, and 2.2.
3. Experimental Approach for Confirming mod_headers Operation
4. Web Deployment Approach
Having direct FTP access to the web-page folders on my server, along with an out-of-the-way place to try out the change, is relatively safe. Since I am placing an .htaccess file where there presently is none, it is feasible to (1) upload the file, (2) see if it works, and (3) quickly delete it if there is any failure. Having succeeded in introducing .htaccess files for other purposes, I'm confident I can make the change correctly.
I'll not do it that way. Instead, I will rely on my web-deployment-safety model and take advantage of the safety net it affords, even though I could do without it if all I wanted was experimental confirmation. This is a cybersmith post, and I want to illustrate a disciplined approach that has more flexibility in the long run. To see the result that could have been attained by using the direct approach, you can peek ahead to section 6, below, and the image just above it.
Here is the structure of safeguards that I employ to control updates to my sites, keep them backed up, and also have a way to restore/move some or all of the sites. I can also roll-back changes that are incorrect or damaging. I can repair a corrupted site too (and I have had to do that in the past).
5. Authoring the .htaccess File
If I was simply making an .htaccess page, I would create it directly in a text editor, having a file such as that created in step 4, below. That page would be saved at a convenient location-machine address and then transferred to the hosted-site using FTP, leading to the result in section 6.
To preserve my development and deployment model, I require more steps.
6. Deploying the .htaccess File
Having edited the .htaccess file on my development machine and checked it into VSS (on the development server), the next steps are all conducted on the development server:
This is the same deployment procedure for updating of any of my individual sites under the hosted-site. A script for it would be useful. This is on my someday-not-now list. Scripted or not, this is the basic procedure.
7. Confirming .htaccess Success
Assuming that the .htaccess introduction has not derailed the server, confirmation of the parameters and their success is straightforward:
8. Shampoo, Rinse, Repeat
We've demonstrated that the .htaccess customization works correctly on my web site and provides the desired result on a little-used URL that is a placeholder for work yet to come. After this cautious effort, it will be straightforward to add similar .htaccess files to each of the individual sites implemented on the hosted-site.
Before that, I will first add the custom-header response to the .htaccess file that is already at public_html, the root of the main site, http://nfocentrale.com. This provides the custom header for all access.
Once all site access returns the custom HTTP header, I can then take my time determining how to work toward migrating sections of web sites to pages that view properly in IE 8.0 standards mode. That will be accounted for as additional mitigation steps.
9. Tools and Resources
The following tools were used in this mitigation step:
Technorati Tags: interoperability, IE8, web site construction, web standards, compatibility, conformance, document preservation, document formats, IE8.0 mitigation, HTML 5
[update 2008-09-08T00:24Z Cross-posted from Pursuing Harmony because of the overlap with convergence of HTML, web standards, and the IE80.0 mitigation that is touched on here.]
Be prepared for a dramatic shift in the reality of web-site browsing and the honoring of web-page standards. The pending release of Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 is going to put the reality of web standards and their loose adherence in our faces. Although Internet Explorer is indicted as the archetypical contributor to disharmony on the web, Internet Explorer 8 is going to challenge all of us to deal with the reality of our mutual contribution to the current state of affairs.
Here is a lesson, probably many lessons, for document interoperability and the way that standards for document formats evolve and harmonize, or not, over time.
The Web as Clinical Science
The movement from loosely-standard pages and their browsing to strictly-standard pages and standards-mode browsing will illustrate every aspect of the same challenge for office-productivity documents and the office suites that process them.
Web pages are the experimental drosophilae of digital documents. All aspects of dynamic convergence on standards, themselves evolving, and the forces of divergence, are demonstrated clearly and rapidly. I expect it to take Internet generations for significant convergence, with no static level of standards adherence anywhere in sight. It took us almost 20 years to get to this point on the Web; I figure it will take at least five more to dig out of it far enough to claim that there is a standards-based web in existence and in practice. I'm optimistic, considering that HTML 5, the great stabilization, is not expected to achieve W3C Recommendation status until 2012.
No document-interoperability convergence effort is anywhere close to the promising situation of the web as Internet Explorer 8, HTML5 implementations, and other compatibility-savvy browsers roll out over the next several years. It is useful to use that situation to calibrate how convergence and interoperability could work for document interoperability. There are significant technical barriers. The non-technical barriers are the most daunting. That should be no surprise.
Versioning in Document Use
I've written on Orcmid's Lair about the IE 8.0 Disruption. This involves changes in Internet Explorer 8.0 by which web pages are rendered in standards-mode on the assumption that pages are conformant with applicable web standards. In the past, it was presumed that pages were loosely-standard and browsers, also loosely-standard, made a kind of best effort to present the page. The consequences have been explained marvelously in Joel Spolski's post on Martian Headsets.
We are similarly relying on document-format standards as a way to provide for many-to-many interchange and interoperability between different (implementations of versions of) document-format standards and different (implementations of versions of) processors of those digital documents. That means we have a version of the loosely-standard documents with loosely-standard processing problem. We can't be strictly standard because the standards can't (and definitely don't) have strict implementations at the moment; and there are many ways that specifications and implementations have been kept loose by design. Accompanying that looseness by design is the the simple fact of immaturity among the contending document-format standards for office applications, particularly as vehicles for interoperable applications.
For office-productivity documents as we know and love them, there are five, count 'em five "official standards."
The "Official" Public Standards of Office Documents
For Office Open XML Format (OOXML), there is the ECMA-376 specification of December 2006. There is also the ISO/IEC 29500:2008 Office Open XML File Formats standard once it is made available. IS 29500 will have some substantive differences from ECMA-376. We won't have a solid calibration of the differences until the IS 29500 specifications are available and subject to extensive review.
For the OpenDocument Format, there is the Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.0 OASIS Standard issued 1 May 2005. There is also the ISO/IEC 26300:2006 Open Document For Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.0 standard (also on the publicly-available listing). IS 26300 is for the same format as the OASIS v1.0 standard, but it is on a completely-separate standards progression. Appendix E.3 accounts for the differences of IS 26300 from the text of the May 2005 OASIS Standard. The first page of the IS 26300:2006 document (page 5 of the PDF) identifies its source as Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.0 (Second Edition) Committee Specification 1, dated 19 July 2006, derived from document file OpenDocument-v1.0ed2-cs1.odt; this is not another OASIS Standard, however.
The second and latest OASIS Standard for ODF is Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.1 issued 2 February 2007. This document is derived from OpenDocument v1.0 (Second Edition) Committee Specification 1, the same specification that is the source of content for ISO/IEC 26300:2006. The changes made to arrive at ODF v1.1 from the v1.0 (Second Edition) committee specification are detailed in Appendix G.4. There are some mildly-breaking changes from ODF v1.0 to ODF v1.1, mostly of a clarification or correction nature. There are a few additional features that have no down-level counterparts in ODF v1.0.
A third OASIS Standard, ODF v1.2, is under development. The current drafts, using a very-different organization from v1.1, are available as pubic documents of the OASIS Open Document TC.
We can expect to see more versions of ODF and of OOXML at their various standards venues. We'll be watching here on nfoWorks as the situation becomes even more chaotic. Notice that this diversity ignores the variety of divergent implementations of the various specifications.
Format Versions that Live Forever
It is possible for one document-format specification to officially supplant another, with the older specification deprecated. That has not been done so far with any of the five-and-growing document-format specifications, any more than it has been done for most of the versions of HTML specifications that have been recommendations of the W3C (and IETF before the development track moved entirely to W3C).
For example, the last full-up specification for HTML, the HTML 4.01 W3C Recommendation of 24 December 1999, has this to say about its immediate predecessor: "This document obsoletes previous versions of HTML 4.0, although W3C will continue to make those specifications and their DTDs available at the W3C Web site." This was possible because HTML 4.0 was young and there were important defects that 4.01 cured.
The HTML 4.01 specification continues with the following recommendation: "W3C recommends that user agents and authors (and in particular, authoring tools) produce HTML 4.01 documents rather than HTML 4.0 documents. W3C recommends that authors produce HTML 4 documents instead of HTML 3.2 documents. For reasons of backward compatibility, W3C also recommends that tools interpreting HTML 4 continue to support HTML 3.2 [W3C Recommendation 14 January 1997] and HTML 2.0 [IETF rfc1866 November 1995 and the IETF-obsoleting rfc2854 June 2000] as well."
The XHTML branch of specifications, originally derived from HTML 4.01, were intended as the basis for a future generation.
Meanwhile, there has been work toward both XHTML 2 and HTML 5.0.
HTML 5.0 is currently intended to exist alongside XHTML 1.x and its newer arrangements while also absorbing XHTML 1.x to some degree (by having an XML form). The current HTML 5.0 draft specifies legacy processing (in its HTML-syntax form) for variations of over 60 HTML DOCTYPE DTD flavors, extending back to HTML 1.0 and other variants. The intention is to converge HTML and XHTML 1.x under a consistent HTML 5 processing model with only no-quirks, some-quirks, and quirks modes. This is also intended to end the variation and extension of HTML (not XHTML) by capturing <!DOCTYPE HTML> for its own and having a concrete HTML syntax that is fully-divorced from both SGML and XML. It is important to point out that HTML 5 is not going to eliminate the divergence that browser (user-agent) plug-in models, plug-in implementations and scripting systems (especially client side) bring to the mix.
Document-format versions are not easily abandoned. Even if production of a format is deprecated, consumption of the format may need to continue into the indefinite future, and certainly so long as emitters of deprecated formats have significant usage. The W3C progression of HTML is at a point where that is fully-recognized and being honored in reaching toward an HTML 5 plateau sometime in the next decade.
Considering this promising stabilization, when would I manage to change all of my web sites and blogs to clean HTML 5 pages? Not until I know that visits to those sites are only a small fraction of Internet Explorer versions prior to IE8 (or maybe IE9) and other browsers lacking full-up standards-mode processing. Fortunately, the HTML 5 specification-effort promises to show me exactly how to do that in a mechanical way. I am looking forward to automated assistance. In my case, I'll also have the benefit of my IE 8.0 mitigation effort. Other web sites may require other approaches, and user browser choice will involve important trade-offs for some time.
I am surprised by the number of people who operate multiple browsers. Although I operate multiple products for office applications these days, that's mostly to explore their interoperable use, not to ensure ability to interchange documents (well, not until I joined OASIS and the ODF TC). I've been a serial adopter of Internet Explorer versions since IE 2.0. As a typical late-adopter, I may finally branch out now just to have a better calibration of the migration to standards-based sites and browsers for them.
This is an important lesson for the management of the expanding variety of specifications of formats for office-application documents, formats of which HTML packagings are sometimes one of the flavors.
Reconciling office-application document-format versions does not promise to be so easy as the current effort to stabilize HTML for the web.
The Looseness of Document Specifications
Of course, OOXML and ODF are not close dialects off a single family tree, as HTML variants might be treated (and HTML 5 demonstrates, if successful). In addition, the current specifications are not for same-conformance, interchangeable-everywhere documents:
Prospects for Interoperable Convergence
We already have before us difficulties with interoperable convergence of individual progression of a single standard and its variety of implementation. This makes the prospect of harmonization between different standard formats rather murky.
Desktop office-application software has more promise with regard to application of Postel's Law, to be liberal in what is accepted and conservative in what is produced. Unfortunately, the current specifications do not require conservative, interoperable implementations; the current specifications are arguably antagonistic to such an achievement.
I suspect that this is an unintended consequence mixed with some inattention to what it takes for interoperability to be achievable.
It remains to see how our experience and understanding matures. We are at the beginning, not the finish. The journey may seem endless.
The process of IE 8.0 mitigation and preparation for a standards-mode approach to web browsing impacts this site and blog as well as every other web page I have ever posted (somewhere over 120MB worth and climbing).
I'm not going to say anything more about IE 8.0 mitigation and HTML harmonization here. The overall effort will be tracked in that category of Professor von Clueless posts; that's the place to follow along. The lesson for document interoperability is something that is definitely appropriate for Pursuing Harmony; there'll be much more to say about that.
Technorati Tags: interoperability, web standards, trustworthiness, IE8, usability, web site construction, compatibility, cybersmith
I've elected to adopt the IE 8.0 beta 2 release as a tool for checking the compatibility of web and blog pages of mine. I see how disruptive the change to default standards-mode is going to be and how IE 8.0 is going to assist us. I need to dig out tools and resources that will help me mitigate the disruption and end up with standards-compliant pages as the default for new pages.
Looking Over IE 8.0 beta 2
I avoid beta releases of desk-top software, including operating systems and browsers. Because the standards-mode default of IE 8.0 is going to place significant demands on web sites, I also thought it time to install one copy of IE 8.0 simply to begin assessing all of my web sites and blog pages for being standard-compliant enough to get by. I am willing to risk use of beta-level software in order to be prepared for the official release in this specific case. I'm also sick of having IE 7.0 hang and crash on mundane pages such as my amazon.com logon. I'm hoping that even the beta of IE 8.0 will give me some relief from the IE 7.0 unreliability experience. And so far, so good.
With the promotion of beta2 downloading this past week, I took the plunge. Installation was uneventful and all of my settings, add-ins, favorites and history were preserved. My existing home page, default selections, menus and tool bars were also preserved. [I am using Windows XP SP3 on a Windows Media Center PC purchased in September, 2005. IE 8.0 beta 2 also seems faster on this system in all of its modes.]
I did not review much of the information available on IE 8.0, expecting to simply try it out.
My first surprise was a change to the address bar. There is a new format where all but the domain name of the URL are grayed. That was distracting for the first few days and it still has me stop and think. I realized this is the point: emphasizing the domain name so that people will tend to check whether they are where they expect to be. I like the idea, even though I have to look carefully and remember the full URL is there when I want to paste it somewhere or share the page on FriendFeed or elsewhere. I take this provision as one of those small details that demonstrates a commitment to safe browsing and confident use of the Internet.
What I was looking for, and saw immediately, is the new compatibility-view button. This "broken page" button appeared on the first site I visited after installation of IE 8.0 beta 2.
Clicking the button causes it to be shown as depressed and the page is re-rendered as a loosely-standard page with the best-effort presentation and quirks renderings of IE 7.0 and earlier Internet Explorer releases. If you leave the button selected, the setting is remembered and automatically-selected on your next visits to the same domain. It stays that way until you unselect the button by clicking it again while visiting pages of that domain. It was this feature that tipped-me over in wanting to check out my own pages using beta2 (although I thought the button was tracked at the individual page level until I read the description of domain-level setting).
By the way, if a page is detected to require a standards or compatibility mode specifically, no compatibility view option button is presented.The amazon.com site is this way from my computer, and so is Vicki's pottery-site home page. I looked at the source of the amazon.com site and confirmed that they are not using the special tag that requests that the compatibility view be automatic. I didn't check the HTTP headers to see if they are using that approach to forcing a compatibility or a standards-mode view. I know I did nothing of the kind on Vicki's site. This suggests to me that there is also some filtering going on in standards-mode rendering to notice whether a compatibility view should be offered. I'm baffled here. I am curious whether there is any browser indication when the compatibility view is selected by a web page tag or HTTP header. I suspect not and I'll have checked into that soon enough.
I also checked out the InPrivate browsing feature, which, although popularly dubbed the "porn mode," is very useful when using a browser from a kiosk or Internet cafe and when making private on-line transactions from home.
At this point, I am not interested in special features of IE 8.0 other than those related to improving the standards-compliant qualities of web pages and the browsing experience. I may experiment with other features later. My primary objective is to use the facilities of IE 8.0 and accompanying tools to improve the quality and longevity of my web publications. Once I have some mastery over web standards, I will look into accessibility considerations, another project I have been avoiding.
Disrupting the State of the Web
The problem that IE 8.0 is intended to help resolve is the abuse of Postel's Law [compatibility view offered] that the web represents: "be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others." The abuse arises when what you do is based on what is being accepted, with no idea what it means to be conservative. The web was and is an HTML Wild West and it is very difficult to enforce conservatism (that is, strict standards conformance in web-page creation). Since browsers also varied in what they accepted and then what they did with it, loosely-standard pages and loosely-standard browsers have been the norm and web pages are crafted to match up with the actual response of popular browsers.
Since Internet Explorer is made the heavy in this story, we now get to see the price of changing over to "be strict in what is accepted and be standard in what is done with it." This is a very disruptive change. We'll see how well it works. Joe Gregorio argues that exceptions to Postel's Law are appropriate. Some, like Joel Spolski [no compatibility view], think it might be a little too late. There are already some who claim that the IE 8.0 Compatibility view is a sin against standardization [compatibility view offered], no matter that not many of the 8 billion and climbing pages out there are going to be made strictly-conformant any time soon. With regard to compatibility mode, I think it is foolish for it not to be there and Mary-Jo Foley is correct to wonder how much complainers are grasping at straws.
It was surprising to me to observe how regularly the compatibility-view option button appears and how terribly much of my material renders in IE 8.0's standards mode. Apparently the button is there because IE 8.0 can't tell whether the page is really meant to be rendered via standards-mode or is actually a loosely-implemented page. I'm spending a fair amount of time toggling back and forth to see if there is any difference on sites I visit. This suggests to me that there is going to be a rude awakening everywhere real soon now. It is also clear to me that I don't fully understand exactly how this works, and I need to find a way to test the explanation on the IE blog and the discrepancies I notice, especially when the compatibility-view option is not offered and I know nothing special was done to accomplish that on the web page I am visiting. I am also getting conflicting advice when I use an on-line web-page validator.
This change-over to unforgiving, default-standards-mode browsers is going to be very disruptive for the Internet. In many cases, especially for older, not-actively-maintained material, the compatibility view is the only way to continue to access the material successfully. There is a great deal of material for which it is either too expensive or flatly inappropriate to re-format for compatible rendering using strictly-standard features. Without compatibility view, I don't think a transition to standards mode could be possible. The feature strikes me as a brilliant approach to a very sticky situation.
Although there is a way to identify individual pages as being loosely-standard and intended for automatic compatibility view, that still means the pages have to be touched and replaced, even to add one line to the <head> element of the HTML page. There are billions of pages that may require that treatment. Perhaps many of them will be adjusted. That will take time. Meanwhile, having the compatibility-view option and its automatic presentation is very important.
There is also a way to adjust a web server to provide HTML headers that request a compatibility (or standards-mode only) view of all pages from a given domain. That strikes me as a desperate option to be used only when there is no intention of repairing pages of the site. I might do that temporarily, but only while I am preparing for a more-constructive solution that doesn't depend on compatibility view being supported into the indefinite future. The variations on the available forms of control (browser mode, DOCTYPE, HTTP header, and meta-tag) need to be studied carefully. I expect there to be confusion for a while, probably because I am feeling confused with the ambiguities in my experience so far.
Another problem, especially with regard to IE 8.0 beta2, is that we don't reliably know how badly a loosely-standard page will render with a final standards-mode browser versus the terrible standards-mode rendering that beta2 sometimes makes at this time. It is conceivable that the degradation might not be quite so bad as it appears in beta2, but there is no way to tell just yet.
The need for expertise and facility with semi-automated tools as part of preserving sites with standards-conforming web pages is probably a short-term business opportunity. The web sites that may be able to make the transition most easily may be those like Wikipedia, where the pages are generated from non-HTML source material. (That makes it surprising that Wikipedia pages currently provoke compatibility buttons and compatibility view is needed to do simple things like be able to follow links in an article's outline.)
Mitigating IE 8.0
To mitigate the impact of IE 8.0 becoming heavily used, it is necessary to find ways to do the least that can possibly work at once, and then to apply that same attitude in making the next most-useful change, and so on, until the desired mix of standards-compliant and loosely-compliant pages is achieved.
To find out what tools are available along with IE8 beta 2, these pages provide some great guidance and resources:
That should point you to all of the resources you need to understand how to check sites, how to use the compatibility provisions, and other ways to take advantage of IE8 availability when it exits beta.
I'm looking at a progression that will allow the following:
I will work out my own approach on Professor von Clueless, since I have definitely blundered my way into this.
This post is also being used to identify the IE8 mitigation required for this blog, along with some other improvements:
When I update the template to force compatibility with the current loosely-standard blog-page generation, this post will reflect that too.
[update 2008-08-30T16:42Z I had a few clumsy bits to clean up, taking the opportunity to elaborate further in some areas. The disruption with standards-mode web browsing is a great lesson for standards-based document-processing systems and office-suite migrations toward document interoperability. I'm going to pay attention to that from the perspective of the Harmony Principles too.]
Technorati Tags: cybersmith, confirmable experience, interoperability, trustworthiness, IE8, screen capture, usability, web site construction
Finding ways for the experience of users to be confirmable by the producers of software is increasingly difficult as we operate with distributed applications over networks and the world-wide web. Because we can't directly show another user or the software producer what our experience is, we need forensic tools that allow us to capture and communicate the locally-observed behavior to others who are elsewhere. I always keep screen capture software handy. An experience with the new Internet Explorer 8 beta 2 release demonstrates the value of that.
Screen Capture: the Primo Confirmability Utility
One of the most-important tools for cybersmiths, including power users, is a screen-capture utility. Whenever I set up a new computer, my favorite screen capture utility (currently HyperSnap 6.30) is one of the first two products I install. (The other is WinZip for its value in addition to the built-in Zip capability of Windows Explorer. That's actually in a three-way tie with my password-safe utility and Microsoft OneCare.)
If I could count on a screen saver being available during initial set-up (even log-on if that were possible) and configuration of a new computer's operating system, I would be even happier. I want a screen-shot record of everything that I go through and of every option and setting and parameter that I choose. I do the same thing whenever I am installing a new software package for the first few times.
And whenever there is an unusual incident, I start grabbing screen shots as long as I am able. If I can't make screen captures, I will grab my digital camera or (though needing to get the hang of it still) my Windows Mobile cellular phone.
Although there is limited screen capture capability built into systems like Windows, I rarely want the entire screen. Also, I want to save in a loss-less compact format, almost always preferring PNG format. This format is easily included in e-mails and posted on a web site to back up an incident report or provide documentation of something interesting. All of the VC++ Novice screen shots have been created this way.
Screen Capture: Do You See What I See?
In today's world of distributed applications, one of the greatest difficulties is dealing with interoperability problems (e.g., garbled e-mail messages, broken web-page presentations, and document viewing/presentation glitches). Even if an offending file or document is sent back to the source with an incident description, the recipient may not see what you saw. Reproduction isn't even the first problem. Clearly seeing what it is you experienced is the first problem. There needs to be an out-of-the-failing-channel way to deliver a visible rendition of what you are seeing. Sending a screen shot will do that.
Confirmable Experience for Trustworthiness
This ability to report your experience in a way that a distant party can confirm it is a critical need in today's richly-variable and richly-connected world. I expect that we will eventually rate software and its support by how well it lends itself to confirmation of user experiences, along with easy reproducibility and remedy of unexpected situations and usability difficulties. The first step is to be able to demonstrate what happened in a simple way. Today, use of screen shots is one of the easiest and reliable ways to do that. There often needs to be an accompanying narrative and any data or files involved, but the screen captures are essential for clarity.
My colleague Bill Anderson and I use the term "confirmable experience" almost habitually when discussing interoperability breakdowns, inscrutable installation instructions, and the occasional flagrant exhibition of system incoherence.
There's another kind of confirmable experience, and it is the one I can avail myself of as a developer and software producer. There are many cases where I need to find ways to confirm what kind of experience my software products (including web pages) are providing and what the breakdowns are. Screen capture is useful for documentation and demonstrations as well as being an important forensic tool.
An Example with Internet Explorer 8.0
I am one of those people who provides an absolute minimum of testing for web sites and blog pages. I figure that if the material shows properly in my authoring tools and also in my usual browser (yes, Internet Explorer), I am on safe ground. Also, because I do not use scripts and I have static pages almost entirely (with the occasional embedded video frame), I rely on pretty-simple HTML.
I also figure that I am fairly safe from problems with standards-strict browsers of various flavors. I make sure that my recent web pages are in UTF-8 (to minimize character encoding issues) and have an unassuming DOCTYPE declaration (for HTML 4.01 transitional mainly).
I've never received a report about rendering difficulties with my web pages, although that's not a reliable test.
Knowing that Internet Explorer 8.0 is going to usher in a period of widespread standards-strictness, I figured that I was still relatively safe. Just the same, when IE 8.0 beta 2 was released the other day, I decided it was time that I took my chances with the browser in order to find out how well my sites will be viewed (expecting an immediate "pass" grade of course). Another value of confirmable experiences is separation of fantasy and magical thinking from reality. Sure enough ...
Once I had installed IE8 beta 2, my first check was with my default home page, http://my.yahoo.com, where I regularly check the weather, headlines and movie listings for my favorite local cinema. The page passed the eyeball test, although I now see that there is a
Notice, also, that the experience I had is with my my.yahoo.com, not yours or anyone else's. This is an easy way to demonstrate to someone what my experience is, no matter what their own checking reveals. I love how this is working out. And of course, my simpler pages would fare well. Sure ...
Not So Fast, Sparky
One of the oldest web pages that I still have on a site is the home page for Orcmid's Liar, http://orcmid.com. This is a trivial page, essentially a place-holder for riches yet to come, while I distract myself with blogging, other content, and little concern for this site's puny entrance. I expected this to be a no-brainer.
The result is terrible. The single-row, three-column table at the top of the page is mangled. There is text missing from the central cell and the table does not span across the width of the page as intended. It looks like the table has been wrapped on the page with the third cell below the first two.
Compatibility mode (that is, loose enforcement of standards with a best-efforts rendering) provides what I am accustomed too:
This is a common page top-heading format used throughout my web sites. I nosed around to see if they all render so badly in IE8
While wandering around, I noticed another problem. Sometimes when I return to the home page, viewed in
Exactly Whose Experience Are We Experiencing?
Granted, my home page is not strictly-standard according to IE8 beta2, and it is presented properly only with the forgiving compatibility mode for loosely-standard HTML. At the same time, absence of consistent behavior is an indication that there may still be defects in the IE8 implementation of strict-presentation in accordance with web standards.
I was still left with the problem of straightening this out. It seemed to me that the page is simple enough that I could repair the page and not resort to the special meta-tag to request compatibility mode in browsers, such as IE8, that will recognize and automatically accept loosely-standard pages and render them as well as IE7 does.
I attempted to edit the HTML, making adjustments to the 3-column table that I though might help. There was no change. But there are other pages on the site with the same 3-piece top heading and those render fine. So I copied one of the successful 3-column tables in place of the current one, edited the text appropriately, and found success:
The compatibility button has not disappeared, and there is more to accomplish. But the ugliest part has been repaired successfully. I'm not sure what the difference was, so there is more to learn.
The next action, for me, is to use an HTML validator that lets me attest to the validity of the pages on my sites. That will come later as I find occasion to review all of the pages, treating the most-embarrassing glitches first.
I also must deal with the fact that all I have done so far is treat symptoms, without a clue regarding the underlying cause. This is particularly bothersome because the cause might be the beta2 status of IE8 and not entirely a matter of a page's non-standardness.
This post has more confirmable-experience dimensions than revealed by the immediate content:
All of those arrangements are being explored with this single post. There's a principle about making only one change at a time that I am neglecting. OK, I feel lucky. This is the Blunder Dome, after all.
Update 2008-08-30T16:43Z I made some awful errors ("two-days" instead of "todays") and chose to tweak the page. I also notice that there are more problems that I don't know what to do with. It is time to come up with an IE8 mitigation approach. Stay tuned.
Update 2008-08-30T18:24Z I did achieve the three tangential objectives. As a result of that and the experience reworking the orcmid.com home page, I am adding an IE8.0 mitigation category for this post and others to follow on this and other blogs of mine.
Update 2008-08-31T02:46Z After developing further analysis and checking out further resources from Microsoft, I realized that I misunderstood the significance of the Compatibility View and what has the button be present. This page has been touched up accordingly.
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