Rails Internet Explorer Integration Guide

After about nine months of blissful Firefox-only development, Bonanzle finally started down the long road to Internet Explorer-compatibility a couple months ago. Though I’ve met few web developers who like the process of supporting IE, browser statistics show that fully 50% of users are still on some version of it (IE 6 has about 30%, IE 7 around 25%), so it’s something we have to deal with. Having just about wrapped up our backporting, I thought I’d share a few observations and tips on the process.

First of all, for background, I had never really touched web development of any sort until about 9 months ago. At the beginning of the backport, we had nary opened IE to see how our site would fare in it. As you might guess, the answer was “not well.” Because Bonanzle is rife with rich Javascript, and we use CSS-based layouts, few of our 30-ish pages were IE-compatible at the start of our backport. Many of our most substantial pages could not even render in IE without spewing 10+ JS errors.

But with a couple tools and rules, the process of moving toward IE compatibility ended up becoming relatively straightforward, and even our most complex and nuanced functionality has now been coerced into IE compliance.

The most important lesson I would impart to aspiring web applications: use a Javascript library. Like all young Rails sites, we started with Prototype. Once we were ready to take the training wheels off, we started using jQuery. Our backport revealed that only about half of our handwritten JS code worked in IE without modification. Some but not all of our Prototype worked. And almost all the jQuery did.

There are plenty of pages already out on the web dedicated to the comparison of jQuery to Prototype, but suffice to say for our purposes, my relationship with Javascript was an antagonistic one until I met jQuery. Now, I almost look forward to writing JS. Being able to batch select elements using pure CSS selectors, not needing to check for nulls when accessing selectors, and being able to concisely make complex behaviors happen with concatenated method calls are all big reasons. The rich plugin architecture is an even bigger reason. There seemed to be no task too large or small for a cross-browser jQuery plugin. Some of our heavily utilized plugins included the drag and drop ui-*.js, the jqModal plugin, and the jquery delegate plugin. We also worked with a contractor who custom-wrote some jQuery plugins for us that, like all jQuery I’ve encountered, “just worked” in IE (well, after they worked in Firefox, but that’s easy to make happen with Firebug).

If you do choose to go the jQuery route in writing your site, do yourself a favor and look into the JS QueueSpring plugin — it’s discussed in the previous blog, and is ideal for binding jQuery behaviors with your DOM elements in a clean and fast-loading way.
As far as CSS goes, there is no easy way to sum up means by which to write CSS that is IE6/7 compatible. I think that for all but the most experienced web developers, it is an iterative process. What I can recommend are some tools to speed up your iterations. First of all, if you’re on Windows, you’ll need to be able to install the version of IE you don’t have (6 or 7). This is most easily done by downloading the IE virtual machines Microsoft provides on their site. These provide an out-of-the-box solution for running IE6 and IE7 side-by-side on your machine (not otherwise possible). They also come bundled with some of the best tools available for figuring out what you’re looking at in IE: the Web Developer toolbar and the Script debugger. The former is basically a wussy version of Firebug that allows you to mouse over elements and see their properties, but not modify those properties dynamically, the way Firebug allows. The latter is a fairly lame way to see what’s going on in your JS when IE encounters errors. For both IE6 and IE7, you’ll need to ensure that you allow Script Debugging, which is under Tools -> Internet Options -> Advanced.

If you’ve got a big project on your hands, you’ll probably find the Script Debugger to be too barren… from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t allow you to set breakpoints in an arbitrary file, it has no watch window, and you can’t edit code from within it. A better choice is to install Visual Studio and use that as your JS debugger. If you don’t have it, you can download a free, “text only” version of Visual Studio with Ruby in Steel. You can then uninstall the RiS if it’s not your cup of tea (though it should be), leaving Visual Studio installed.

That’s the basic framework of what we’ve used to get our site from IE crashfest to lovable huggable puppy dog. Hopefully this may start off you other intrepid cross-browser souls on your journey as well. May you be strong, and repeat after me… “only 12-20 months until IE6 is obsolete.”

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