Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), which is the default browser in Windows 7, has been reported by the general public as one of the most problematic Microsoft Web browsers in years. People have been reporting that there are numerous websites that are not accessible in IE8. Unfortunately, the websites they visit frequently are the ones they can’t access. For example, they can’t access Hotmail, Yahoo, and PayPal but they can access all the other sites. When they are able to access the sites, the content is not displayed properly. Sometimes only part of the page is displayed. People with multiple computers have success accessing these problematic sites in older versions of IE on various operating systems, such as IE 7 on Windows Vista or IE 6 on Windows XP.
In this article, I am going to explain why some people are having problems accessing certain websites in IE8 and what, if any, is a possible solution from Microsoft to address their concerns. Not everyone is experiencing these problems and I definitely don’t want to make it sound that IE8 is a completely useless browser. It is not. I want to address a specific issue facing certain IE8 users, and if you are experiencing this issue you will understand what I am talking about. There are numerous enhancements in IE8 which makes it a far more appealing browser than its predecessors. However, the focus of this article is on the particular issue of people having trouble accessing certain websites in IE8, even though the exact same sites are accessible in IE8’s predecessors.
I should point out that there are other reported problems with IE8, such as slow load time, browser freezes, problem starting IE8, and unexpected shutdowns. However, these are not necessarily due to flaws in IE8. I believe a lot of them are related to corrupt add-ons, viruses, etc. Similar problems also exist in non-Microsoft browsers. For example, some people report that the browser is redirecting to URLs they didn’t type in the address bar. Often this is by design. For example, if you type http://www.microsoft.net you will be redirected to http://www.microsoft.com and http://www.google.net will redirect you to http://www.google.com. If users disable some of the security settings, such as popup blockers and protected mode, they are likely to encounter a lot of problems with their browser. It’s important to understand that there are some common perceived problems that exist in all browsers, and IE8 is no exception; but I am focusing only on a specific problem in this article.
Accessing information on the Internet and reading e-mail are perhaps the two primary activities that majority of computer users perform each day. Considering the fact that Internet Explorer is the most widely used web browser in the world, it’s not very comforting to find out that there are numerous websites that are practically broken in IE8. This affects productivity and the total cost of ownership.
Just do a search in your favorite browser for IE8 problems in Windows 7 and see for yourself what people are complaining about. Depending on which browser you use, the results are surprisingly different. Out of curiosity, I first used Bing to search for IE8 problems in Windows 7 and got 63,000 results. Then I used Google to search for the same string and got a whopping 960,000 results. Granted, this is not a scientific test by any means but it makes you wonder why this large discrepancy in the results: 63,000 versus 960,000. I will let you ponder on this.
Why IE Seems to be Broken?
What’s the under lying cause of all this confusion? Why are thousands of reported websites that are displayed improperly, or not displayed at all, when you use IE8 engine to surf the Web? In February 2009, Mary Jo Foley posted the article Microsoft’s IE 8 Incompatibility List: 2,400 major sites (and counting). In her article, she listed the incompatible websites, which included major sites such as:
- ebay. com
Let’s take a closer look at the actual issue behind the scenes. Unlike previous versions, IE8 renders content in a standards-compliant way. That’s a good thing, and Microsoft should be commended for that. Unfortunately, because the previous versions of IE were so “messed” up (for lack of a better term) and Microsoft has decided to offer a browser that is “standards-compliant”, lots of websites are now inaccessible in IE8. Things are bad enough that Microsoft has written Knowledge Base article 957700 on how to remove IE8 if you can’t fix the IE8 problems. The Knowledge Base article shows you how to remove IE8 from Windows 2008 R2, Windows 2008, Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows Server 2003, and Windows XP. Keep in mind, if you have upgraded your browser in an earlier version of Windows, you can use the procedure described in KB957700. However, because IE8 is the default browser in Windows 7, if you remove IE8, you will have to use a different browser, such as Mozilla Firefox (which, by the way, has no problem accessing all these inaccessible websites).
It’s going to take a while before the site owners fix all the mess. They wanted their websites to appear properly in previous versions of IE, which didn’t comply with all the standards, so they just made sure that their sites work properly in the most widely used browser in the world. With the introduction of IE8, some of these sites started to break, depending on the code and the level of compliance. It took Microsoft years to finally decide to come up with a standards-compliant browser. Whether Microsoft didn’t give public enough warning to update their code or whether the site owners and developers just ignored Microsoft’s warning, I don’t know. The average computer user is the one that have to suffer the consequences.
User Agent String
One reason that IE8 is having problems displaying the pages properly has to do with the User Agent String. Web pages that explicitly check the User Agent String and don’t support IE8 User Agent String may not work properly. In general, this means that users will experience broken web pages or the web content displayed will be either incorrect or malformed. To view your browser’s User Agent String, you can simply type the following case sensitive command into the address bar:
At this stage, all we can do is be patient while all the web developers around the world update their code to fix the broken websites. In the meantime, Microsoft has a solution, which it refers to as Compatibility View.
The So-Called Compatibility View
A Compatibility View List is essentially a list of websites that are broken in IE8. In other words, they are incompatible with IE8. In reality, a Compatibility View List is an Incompatibility View List. Obviously, calling it an Incompatibility List won’t sound too good. Compatibility View List puts a very positive spin on a painful experience and makes it sound as if it was a preplanned “feature” of IE8.
To help the public, Microsoft publishes a Compatibility View List which may make these broken websites accessible. However, as many of you have most likely experienced, the Compatibility View will not fix the problem in all cases. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. At the time of writing, the Compatibility View List included 3,207 websites, presented in an Excel spreadsheet that lists thousands of sites that fall into one of the following categories:
- Added per Microsoft testing
- Added per site owner request
- Removed per Microsoft testing
- Removed per site owner request
- Blanks (this means the site is on the list with no immediate plans for removal)
For a description of Compatibility View, check out the KB article 960321. You can turn on Compatibility View, either for individual websites (Tools, Compatibility View) or for all sites (Tools, Compatibility View Settings, Display all websites in Compatibility View). To view the content of your active list you can type the following in the IE8 address bar:
Save the iecompatdata file to your computer with a .txt extension so you can open it in Notepad. One good thing about the Compatibility View List is that it can be updated as part of Windows Update.
The problem was much more severe a couple of years ago. With each passing week, site owners have been updating their code and a lot of them have been reporting to Microsoft to have their site status updated in the Compatibility View List. This means that their sites will now work properly in IE8. Keep in mind that there are millions of websites on the Internet. Obviously, Microsoft can’t test every one. Microsoft only focuses on major websites to cover the majority of the population. Therefore, the Compatibility View List only includes the websites that either Microsoft has tested or the site owners have reported to Microsoft. That leaves out a vast majority of websites that are not on the list and may never be on the list. However, just because they are not on the list doesn’t mean they won’t work properly in IE8, but it also doesn’t mean that they will. If site owners are slow at updating their websites, there is not much that Microsoft or the consumers can do about it.
One lesson that apparently Microsoft has learned from this experience is that if it would have followed the industry standards right from the beginning, we wouldn’t be having this issue. However, for the past several years Microsoft has made tremendous strides in ensuring that their products comply with the industry standards. This is obvious in their operating systems, services, and products. Obviously, Microsoft’s web browser has taken a little bit longer to come up to speed. Gone are the days when Microsoft and Novell used to make their products incompatible with each other just to get an upper hand, or when Microsoft tried to make NetBEUI the protocol of choice over TCP/IP. Microsoft realized years ago that the best way to do business is to make the products industry-compliant and compatible. It’s a strategy that has been working well for Microsoft and the consumers.
The Good News
Although IE8 has caused a lot of grief and confusion for consumers, I have good news for you. By making IE8 a standard-compliant browser, Microsoft has made a pretty bold move. It’s gutsy because Microsoft knew that there is going to be a painful interim period while all the websites that were designed for older browsers are being updated for IE8. In the long run, this is a great thing for consumers around the world. Fortunately, the problem is not as serious today as it has been in the past due to the reasons I have mentioned earlier. I encourage you to use the Compatibility View, even if it doesn’t work in every case, because it is the best option available to you for the time being.
Looking at the big picture, Microsoft has pretty much fixed the major issues with the primary products that consumers use on a daily basis: operating system, e-mail, and web browser. Windows 7 is perhaps the first Microsoft operating system that even the critics like. It is fair to say that Microsoft has finally come up with a solid operating system in Windows 7. After years of attempts, Microsoft seems to have finally developed an e-mail client in Outlook 2010 that is much more reliable than its predecessors. And with the move to standard-compliance in IE8, you are less likely to hear too many complaints about Microsoft’s Web browser in the future. Microsoft is definitely on the right path.