Age of wise foolishness?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Age of wise foolishness?

Charles Dickens’ description of a historic moment from A Tale of Two Cities fits perfectly my reaction to the recent Mix09 conference, which brought forth some of the very best new technologies from Microsoft and some of its worst decisions for several decades, some of the best presentations and some of the very worst managerial muddled-thinking. Some of us will indeed be going directly to heaven, especially if we live in the US, whereas the rest of the world can go straight to hell. And those enticed by flash and sparkle are some of its noisiest authorities and are insisting that this conference be received “in the superlative degree of comparison only”. In many ways, this was an even more important conference than the Professional Developers Conference of last autumn, but I’ve come away from it with very mixed feelings indeed. Actually, that isn’t strictly accurate – I’m unmixedly happy that certain bad decisions have been brought out into the open, because us customers deserve to know the unvarnished truth.

Let’s start with the good news. First, the keynote speech was the best I’ve seen from Microsoft in nearly a decade – and the lack of attendance by the Microsoft old guard contributed notably to this. Everyone who took part in the keynote was enthused by their work so it was fast-paced, full of new stuff and left me hugely impressed. No Bill Gates of course, but no Ballmer either, nor Ozzie, just the real people who make all this stuff happen. So what did they unveil?

Well, much of this stuff you’ll have seen by now: IE8 went gold and is now available for download. Some users have been finding its performance somewhat leaden on machines with modest amounts of RAM, but there are tweaks and fixes that can make this work properly. Without doubt it’s the best version of IE ever, but whether it breaks any truly new ground is another matter. At least Microsoft is talking openly about supporting the various test suites and ensuring that the platform works, without making excuses. As for the development tools, SuperPreview is a very welcome new tool that you can point at the URL of your new page and it will show how it will look rendered in IE6, 7 and 8 (the final release will include Firefox and Apple’s Safari too). It shows you the pages side by side and enables you to overlay them, so you can get a pixel-perfect visual guide to what’s different between various browsers. But that’s not all – in the development environment, you can move things around and edit the code to ensure everything syncs up between the various browser versions. Even better, there’s DOM highlighting that shows the positions of the rendered elements, and HTML elements display their CSS properties.

Such functionality is hugely overdue. Adjusting code, especially for such non-standard monstrosities as IE6, is the nightmare of every real-world web developer. You can no longer target just one browser platform on one OS and hope that this will do. Well, actually, you can. Many websites try to get away with doing just that, but thankfully, fewer of the big-name brands are falling into this trap nowadays. If I have any criticism of this tool it’s the matter of timing: why has it taken so long to get this ability into the hands of web developers who’ve been battling with browser differences for decades? Download the trial from

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