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Seeking the machine that goes “PNG!!”

February 11, 2002

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I have come to the conclusion that the developers of Internet Explorer for Windows have completely lost the plot. They have been shown up comprehensively by their Mac Business Unit colleagues, their Office division colleagues and in some respects even by the WebTV browser team (who I’m told are largely the same people as the Mac team).

While some of the minor browsers also do nutball things, they at least have the excuse of limited development resources: iCab is largely the work of one man, and OmniWeb of about three. With Windows IE, there is no such excuse. The IE for Windows team contains many hundreds of people, embracing and extending all day, every day. Pity they can’t read specs, or implement them properly.

I don’t deny that there are many things that IE for Windows does well. It’s better than Netscape 4, and although its makers are prone to exaggerate the standards-compliance of their product, they aren’t the only ones.

But there are so many other things that the Windows version of IE simply hasn’t got. It’s not just the wacky misreading of the box model specification, which the developers only got around to fixing in Version 6 – while Mac IE, from Version 4.5 onwards, has read it correctly for the last three years. It’s the lack of support for standard HTML elements like ABBR, ACRONYM and Q. It’s the dopey proprietary Document Object Model. And it’s the brain-dead approach to PNG (Portable Network Graphics) “support.”

Your motives are transparent

Despite the controversy over Unisys claiming patent rights over the GIF format, most Web authors still think that the only graphics formats they can use on the Web are GIF and JPEG. They’d be wrong. Aside from the fact that Windows IE can display Windows Metafile Format, something I found out by accident recently, almost every modern browser can display Portable Network Graphic (PNG) format files.

PNG is a nice format that scales well, and has genuine transparency, which is a real productivity saver. How many times have you generated multiple versions of essentially the same graphic, antialiased against different background colors for different parts of a site? You wouldn’t have to do that with a PNG, because it handles partial transparency, which effectively creates the anti-aliasing for you. It also allows for gamma color correction. And despite being “true color” (32 bit), in many circumstances, it’s more compact than a GIF or JPEG of the same image.

And best of all, PNG is a format defined by the W3C, so there’s never going to be any dramas about licence fees from some unexpected corner (despite some occasional misinformation in that regard).

Older browsers – Netscape before Version 4.04 and IE before Version 4 – didn’t support PNG except through plugins. Since 1997, however, general support for PNG as a native format in browsers has been pretty good. Netscape 6, Mac IE, Opera, iCab all support PNG including its more advanced features. OmniWeb has excellent PNG support, which is a pleasant surprise considering its limited support for so many other Web standards, as do some other minor browsers including NetPositive for BeOS and W3C’s Amaya (see for a comprehensive and up-to-date list of browsers that support PNG and its features). And Microsoft Office uses PNG as its native internal graphics format – there’s that embrace and extend thing again.

But some important browsers have effectively blocked the adoption of PNG as a replacement for other commonly used Web graphics formats. Netscape 4.x doesn’t support the transparency or color correction features. Worse still, Windows IE is letting the team down by supporting only the basic features, messing up graphics that do use partial transparency, and occasionally just forgetting that it can display PNG at all – the reported fix for the latter problem is so arcane that I’m glad I have Macs at home. If people aren’t aware that PNG is a viable format choice, they won’t use it. That’s an efficiency loss in itself. And if the browser with the biggest share on the market doesn’t support PNG’s more advanced features, then PNG isn’t really a viable format choice, or at least not one that offers anything more than existing GIF and JPEG graphics. This is doubly ironic considering PNG is MS Office’s native graphics format, and more than a little annoying. If this annoys you, too, why not add your name to a petition on the subject?

Not long before writing this column, Microsoft and the US government have all but settled the antitrust action that has been dragging on through the courts for years. Now Microsoft is no longer in danger of being broken up, although at least we won’t have to put up with Bill Gates whining that “we didn’t do anything wrong and anyway, everyone else does it too” – the findings of fact were left intact. Still, the experience of Windows IE is proof in my mind that breaking up Microsoft remains a good idea. The company has gotten too big and unwieldy to be effective. The Mac and WebTV teams – even the Windows Office division – are leaving the Windows IE team eating their dust. Someone needs to take the company by the arm and say, “Left hand, meet right hand.” And if that person was me, I’d also be saying, “Now, this is your arse. And this is your elbow.”

— CodeBitch ( is the grumpy cow who does the HTML production for MacEdition. Read other articles by CodeBitch

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