John Allsopp on IE9 as the new Web benchmark


It’s 9AM on a grey Sydney day, and most of the people in the room at a briefing about Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 browser, which launches today, appear to still be waking up, if their enthusiasm for quickfire doses of coffee is any indication.

But not John Allsopp. As the veteran Australian web developer stands up to speak at Microsoft’s launch, his eyes light up and he takes a deep breath to begin, brushing aside the podium conveniently set up in front of his audience of Microsoft staff and journalists. The piece of furniture would be an inhibitor, after all, to Allsopp’s natural energy — his arms waving around wildly and his eyes afire with passion as he talks about the history of the World Wide Web and his vision of its future.

“If you cast your mind back to the early 1990’s, the Web was a very simple thing,” the developer says, kicking off his speech by reminiscing about the “basic protocols and browsers” like the original Netscape Navigator that eventually grew to become the complex and interlocking software ecosystems we enjoy today.

“And yet, for some reason, it took off enormously.”

Allsopp has been following the Web on its developmental journey for the entire period of its existence. The developer is probably best known for the Web Directions conference he helped found in 2004 — which from its Australian roots has since grown into a global series of events spanning Sydney, the United States, Asia and even London. Each year in Sydney, the Web Directions South event brings scores of the nation’s most talented web developers together, acting as a hub for other mini-conference spokes to revolve around.

But he has also been engaged in a number of other initiatives. His company Western Civilisation focuses on software development and is particularly known for its CSS development software Style Master. Allsopp has also developed numerous other tools. Then there’s Scroll Magazine, a print and online journal for web professionals, a number of books on coding, training courses on web development … Allsopp’s resume is long. And he also claims the title of being the first to coin the phrase ‘Web 2.0’ — as well as being a surf lifesaver at Bondi Beach.

According to the developer, the history of the Web has to be understood in terms of the standards wars that have plagued it.

In the mid 1990’s, he says, browser manufacturers like Netscape and Microsoft realised that they could simply implement new features into their software, and web developers would start using them — despite a lack of commonality between rival browsers. Allsopp says this led to improvements in quality around what the Web was capable of delivering, such as Javascript, which fuels many of our modern Web applications. But it also led to fragmentation.

“You needed the latest version of Internet Explorer to do this, and Netscape to do that, and as a developer it was incredibly frustrating,” says Allsopp. “We got to this point in the mid to late 1990’s where it was an absolute disaster from a developer perspective.” The developer asks his audience to imagine what it was like trying to explain to their mother “why you had to get a particular browser to get to a particular site”.

The resolution of the browser wars, the developer says, was the establishment of the World Wide Web Consortium, which became “the United Nations of the Web”. After Web standards started being established — a process he was involved with — browser manufacturers started competing within a standard-based framework, setting a baseline platform for developers to target.

In this context, Allsopp believed the release of Internet Explorer 6 in 2001 was a “milestone” event, coming as it did with rich CSS and Javascript support, as well as integration with Windows. “It was the first modern browser that your Mum and Dad used,” he says, “and that your IT people would actually let you install on your computer.”

Around that time and since, a wave of other browsers have also arrived or dramatically matured — the Mozilla Firefox family, Apple’s Safari, the Opera browser and so on. And of course, IE has improved drastically, adding a slew of features in versions 7 and 8.

However, even today, Allsopp believes much of the Web operates still as it was in 2001 — users still go to distinct web sites, click on links and so on. This could be one reason why IE6 still remains an extremely popular browser on corporate desktops, despite Microsoft’s increasingly proactive efforts to kill it off.

The developer believes that all that will gradually change with the release of IE9 — which he says will push that baseline ahead.

That lowest common denominator just got a bunch of new features — especially focused around version 5 of the HTML standard and version 3 of CSS, but also hardware acceleration, faster Javascript, an improved user interface similar to that of Google’s Chrome browser and more. This morning in Sydney, Microsoft demonstrated a number of web sites with very rich multimedia functionality — such as music videos seamlessly playing behind the text of a radio station site and an in-browser video game music studio EMI.

It’s these sort of features which Allsopp believes is increasingly allowing developers to build their software projects online. He describes the next generation of the Web as “a Web of applications”. “Traditional developers still develop applications, but [they are] increasingly developing them in the browser,” he says.

Other browsers such as Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera are also helping this trend to arrive — and in many ways, some are ahead of IE. But Allsopp says IE’s status as the lowest common denominator will spur change.

“Like it or not, the baseline of the Web is Internet Explorer — it’s what millions of IT departments install on computers around the world,” he says. “It’s still a majority of users by a country mile. It’s the common denominator. The argument clients often have, if you’re a developer, or bosses have, is, ‘will it work in IE?’ It’s our baseline, we don’t go beyond that.”

Allsopp’s vision of the future of Web development is one in which developers stop focusing on traditional platforms such as desktops and laptops — although he notes they will still be used — and start developing for the multitude of ‘screens’ — tablets such as the iPad, smartphones, and even screens built into the back of airplane seats — which are proliferating everywhere.

“We’re seeing screens all over the place, and we’re seeing the Web on all of those screens,” he says. “And let’s face it, screens are getting so cheap, they’re going to be on everything, whether they should be or not. If you think about the challenge as a company developing for this, let’s imagine you want to reach all these screens, do you want a SDK, a toolkit, for all these hundreds of screens? Or do you want a single, unified technology, which allows you to reach out and put applications on all of these different screens?”

“And that’s the vision of the Web. And I think it’s a reality. And I think what we’re seeing with this particular release today, is that’s become the benchmark.”

Allsopp, for one, is banking on his vision being right. Over the next few months he will run an event in Microsoft’s home town of Seattle, focusing on HTML5 and how it will enable the next generation of the Web. But it’s more than the business opportunity that incentivises the developer. It’s the possibilities of this still emerging medium.

“I’m 44 years old, I’ve got three kids under five, should be settling down, but am excited as when I started computer science at Sydney Uni,” he says this morning. And that’s a good place to be.

Video credit: Delimiter


  1. You only have to look at the related articles here and see that CommBank and defence only just upgraded to IE7 (7!!!) in the last year or so to know that we have a LONG way to go until we can all treat IE9 as a true baseline.

    • Maybe … but when you consider that virtually every Federal Government department has flagged an upgrade to Windows 7 at some point over the next 18 months, it’s not hard to imagine that at least IE8 will be in the mix somewhere — and it seems like IE9 will be a harmless, and compatibility enhancing, upgrade.

          • They wouldn’t be using the Windows 7 build disc though. Here were I am (state government) They have a special build (given we are still using XP) But they’ve stripped out what they don’t want/added what they do want and it even has a custom installer.

          • I wouldn’t. We upgraded to IE8 here not so long ago from IE6 and it was a painful long process and we are still running IE6 in some areas because some apps just don’t like IE8

          • Queensland government departments are currently rolling out the eDocs/Hummingbird document-management program that REQUIRES IE6 and screws up one’s system if used with anything more recent.

          • Windows 7 – (maybe Vista too? can’t remember) – allows you to completely uninstall IE. My desktop machines still have it, but I stripped it from my laptop install.

  2. I think he’s missing the point a little, a lot of companies are still only on IE6 and not going to upgrade. Also, Microsoft has a huge habit of blatantly ignoring standards.

  3. I recall reading something a couple of weeks ago about how IE9 passed all these certain tests in regards to website compatibility or something like that. The tools they used to do these tests were built in house.

    I know its vague but I can’t remember where that article was

  4. He has one point – when the worst browser being used is IE9, we will have moved forward. But I believe it is still not as compatible with HTML5 as other browsers, and is still catching up with look and feel.

    I’m also unconvinced that IE is still the most widely-used browser by any wide margin – it is almost certainly the most-installed, given its place in the Windows install, but installation doesn’t equal use (I’ve got two machines with IE installed, but it’s almost never open).

    ANd of course, as others pointed out – the availability of IE9 doesn’t mean it will get used anytime soon … even Microsoft is struggling to get people to upgrade from IE6!

  5. I’d just like to add, as someone who runs a small web dev shop. All the flashy demos they showed reeaaaally annoyed me. They are unusable – no one can implement sites using this tech. MS have been spouting this ‘write once, run everywhere’ line, and then they go and demo stuff that not only doesn’t work on previous versions of IE, but doesn’t work in RC versions of FF or current Chrome either. Almost boasting about it…

    What is the point? We can’t use any of this stuff!

    We’ve only just recently dropped default IE6 support with our new site builds. For some clients however it’s still a necessity.

    Not until everyone is on IE9+, FF4.5+ and Chrome 743 (at the rate they increment major version numbers… won’t be long) can we start to think about advancing.

    FWIW, I think IE9 is a great browser. It does some things that irk me and I’ve retuned back to chrome but there is a lot to like about it.

  6. I believe that in europe, Firefox has actually just beaten IE for browser use by a very small margin

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