Why's all that text on Microsoft web pages so tiny and why does it change so much when I change the font size?

Have you looked at any Microsoft web pages lately using IE5 for Windows, and found the fonts illegibly small? I have. Here's a screenshot of MSDN where the viewport takes up 20cm by 12.5cm of my screen. This is illegibly small.

Did you ever try changing the font size on this page in IE5? Did you notice that if you tell the browser to change the font size one notch, some of the text scales up the normal amount, but the really small text scales up by a much larger amount? That's impossible using CSS! The only things that can happen are that the font size doesn't change or that it scales up by the same factor as the base font size scaled. So that means there's a bug in MSIE5?

But does the extra small font come from a bug in MSIE5, or is there a problem in Microsoft's web page too? I decided to investigate. So I trimmed down the HTML to a simple test case, and then I found the offending CSS very easily. There are problems in both the web page and in the browser. The offending CSS rule is the following:

DIV.clsDocBody TD,
DIV.clsDocBody TH,
DIV.clsDocBody INPUT,
DIV.clsDocBody SELECT { font-size: 67% }

This CSS makes the font size in any table cell (td or th element) 67% of the size of the font in its parent element. The main text of the web page is in nested tables, so the font should be 0.67 * 0.67 = 0.44 times the user's default font size. This is almost guaranteed to be illegible.

So why didn't Microsoft notice this? I think it was because there was a bug in earlier versions of Internet Explorer (including betas of IE5) that font sizes didn't inherit properly into tables. So this is now fixed, and the font is really small, just like the web page asks. Or was it over-fixed?

I haven't yet had a chance to investigate the bug in MSIE5, but there seems to be a bug relating to resizing. I'll probably write more here later.

Here's an example of a page that's even worse. - LDB 1999-05-14

I've recently discovered similar problems with font sizes smaller and larger. See the test in the W3C test suite. - LDB 1999-05-31

Valid HTML 4.0!

(Back to CSS, David Baron)

LDB, dbaron@dbaron.org, 1999-05-05, very rough draft, possibly never to be polished