Microsoft this week took a giant step toward unifying scalable vector graphics on browsers when it took at seat on the SVG working group at the World Wide Web Consortium.

Since 1999, the W3C has been working on a way to bring scalable vector graphics to the Web. After 10 years of work, the specification has become part of the HTML 5 starting lineup. But during all this time, Microsoft has remained on the outside of the SVG development process, choosing to largely ignore the technology.

That all ended Tuesday, when Microsoft’s Patrick Dengler, senior program manager of the Internet Explorer team, joined the working group. Microsoft had previously been engaged in almost every part of the HTML 5 specifications process, so its refusal to acknowledge SVG was a major source of worry for the W3C and the open Web community, so much so that many early attempts to implement the specifications included workarounds to enable scalable vector graphics to be viewed with Internet Explorer.

Dengler was unavailable for comment, but he did blog about Microsoft’s decision. “We recognize that vector graphics are an important component of the next-generation Web platform. As evidenced by our ongoing involvement in W3C working groups, we are committed to participating in the standards process to help ensure a healthy future for the Web. Our involvement with the SVG working group builds on that commitment,” he wrote.

Doug Schepers is the staff contact for the W3C on the SVG working group. He said that Microsoft’s decision to come to the table is important, but it does not yet mean IE 9 will support SVG.

“It’s possible the state of SVG in other browsers has reached the state where it is something they need to pay attention to. I’ve been talking with them for a couple months now, and all of my interactions with them have been technical and very positive, very productive discussions,” said Schepers.

Now that Microsoft is at the table, Schepers said that some workarounds will no longer be needed. He pointed out that the Canvas tag, which includes some capabilities that could be used to make SVG viewable in non-SVG compatible browsers, is still useful for other purposes. The Canvas tag, he said, can be used to rasterize images, allowing them to be presented as simple static pictures rather than scalable mathematically delineated objects.

“This has all been predicated on the idea IE isn’t going to support SVG. If they do, we won’t need those as much. We will still need them for old browsers,” said Schepers.

Another possible reason for Microsoft’s reticence to deal with SVG is that the new format offers advantages over plug-in based graphical interface platforms such as Flash and Silverlight, he said.

“SVG was designed for integration with HTML, CSS and JavaScript. The open Web technology people who already have those skills are already on the road to using SVG,” said Schepers.

“Text in SVG is actually text, so it can be read by screen readers and it can be searched for. You no longer would have this blob that’s a raster, a Flash file or an image. You can find text, select, copy and paste like you can with regular text.”