Is the IE8 Standards Mode a Result of Politics?

Peter Bright at ArsTechnica posted a story this morning about Microsoft’s about-face to make standards-compliant rendering the “default” mode of the new Internet Explorer 8. This is in contrast to its earlier position of attempting to render in a IE7-compliant mode by default, switching to “standards” mode only if the website opts-in.

While I don’t have anything really interesting to say about the technical decision, other than “hooray,” I did find that the latter half of the article tried to explain the change as a hive mind reacting protectively to an external political influence. My experience at a large company leads me to believe that this was not the case.

Microsoft is citing its new interoperability initiative as the impetus behind the change. This move, designed primarily to stave off further EU intervention, emphasizes support and promotion of open standards in a way that the company hasn’t previously done. This move should also help to fend off Opera’s antitrust complaint, which argues that the EU should force IE into better standards compliance.[…]
If the company honestly believed that its approach was, from a technical perspective, the best one—and the software giant certainly put quite some effort into designing and defending it—then it should be of some concern that politics should have caused it to switch. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad that they’re going to make “standards” mode standard. I just wish they were doing so for the right reasons.

To me, this is a prejudice rooted in the way that the outside world prefers to think of large companies — giant, monolithic entities of a single mind. This occurs time and time again in journalism. The preference to characterize corporate behavior as if the organization were a single, albeit giant, individual is almost always inaccurate. It also does the reader a disservice, as people who follow tech then follow the journalist’s lead, and this becomes the common way to think about and understand what large companies do.

First of all, all large companies are comprised of individual actors. Each of them has their own goals, preferences, and opinions about the company’s decisions. Within Microsoft, undoubtedly there are proponents of interoperability and web standards. There are certainly prominent ones in the public eye, but I’d bet that there are many pockets of culture that live, breathe, and prefer open standards. For example: the engineering staff building IE8. These people must make their case for use of open standards to their management, and must consider the company and team’s objectives and stated goals when constructing arguments for spending dev time on open standards.

Here’s my guess as to what happened at Microsoft.

Imagine that you are an influential lead in a team of developers working on the world’s incumbent majority web browser, and you know that the work that you do impacts an enormous amount of people. However, the company that you work for has a history of prioritizing backwards compatibility, especially with prior work that involves the company’s own products and closed standards. In this environment, it is difficult to make the case for prioritizing the adherence to open standards over compliance with earlier products (in this case, IE7-style rendering). You understand that, and so you consent, perhaps against your better judgement or personal feelings, to go with backwards compatibility.

Suddenly, there’s a cultural shift that comes down from the top, stating that the company is now prioritizing interoperability and open standards. Undoubtedly, this is a strategic shift, and one can imagine that it developed as a result of some parts politics, some parts market environment, and some parts executive staff composition. Since you’re on the IE8 team, and you’ve always bought into making open standards the default mode for your browser for the good of the Internet, now’s your chance to really push your case.

You can suddenly frame your argument in the context of new, important, shiny corporate objectives. Your powerpoint decks make their way up the chain, as managers above consider how they might use the opportunity to prove their “leadership” in following new corporate objectives. This is how the management chain can now evaluate the decision in a completely different internal political light. All of them agree that the decision makes sense. The go-ahead is given.

The GM can then post a blog announcement on the IE8 blog that explains the technical details without a modicum of hype or fuss — but it is likely that many people within that team feel very validated at the moment.

So that’s my theory of what might have caused this. As you can see, I do think that there were most likely politics involved in the decision, but only partially in the way that Peter supposed. Most corporate decisions or changes have their start as external market forces bearing down on the executive staff, which then cause a shift in stated objectives or behavior. Whether these things are communicated to the employees internally (memos) or externally (through PR), the message is sent. Especially in a tech company, the individual workers and engineers now tend to rethink and reframe their decisions in light of the new information. So, although the chain of events frequently may have their basis in external political events and relationships, decisions eventually get made through internal politics and relationships.

That’s my understanding, and if you don’t believe me, feel free to go work at a large company for a couple years, and see how things really happen for yourself.

1 thought on “Is the IE8 Standards Mode a Result of Politics?

  1. Great post. Although I do think that we inhabitants of giant corporations also are responsible for this illusion at times. PR people try to project an image of unity, that visionary leadership is comes from the top and is executed by the rank and file.

    Folks like us don’t interfere with this vision. We tend to keep our mouths shut when we disagree with current policies, but when we agree, we enthusiastically say “we at GiantCo believe X”.

    To a naive observer, it must seem a bit hive-mindlike.

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