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More Microsoft shenanigans

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on November 30, 2001
(Issue 1948, Computer Controversy)

Microsoft supporters – and there are a lot of them – often wonder why bashing the software giant is such a popular pastime. Their usual conclusion is that the rest of us are just jealous of Microsoft's success.

It is true that while Americans admire success, we don't like too much success: Get too big for your britches, and you'll be knocked around by the media, late-night talk show hosts, and the public at large.

But a larger reason for the ceaseless grumbling about Microsoft is, quite plainly, the company's arrogant behavior.

Whether it's designing campaigns to destroy competitors (proved over and again by Microsoft's own internal memoranda) and then lying about it, its efforts to undermine industry standards in favor of Microsoft-owned technology (IE's spotty adherence to HTML standards, say), or their latest efforts in Windows XP to redirect every on-ramp to the Internet through MSN, Microsoft repeatedly acts like a corporate jerk.

So when news came out in mid-October that no longer worked properly with the increasingly popular Opera browser nor that from Mozilla, only the most naïve were buying Microsoft's line that it was all just a big misunderstanding.

In the mid-'90s, when Microsoft founder Bill Gates first decided that he wanted to control the browser market, and never mind Netscape, Microsoft's web site suddenly, mysteriously stopped working with Netscape's browsers. Funny, that, no? Especially given that at the time going to was a near-necessity for users of Windows 95, who needed a parade of patches, upgrades and fixes to keep their systems running and stable.

True to form, Microsoft tried to claim that this inability of Netscape users to access Microsoft's web site was due to Netscape not adhering to HTML standards. Back then, though, Netscape was still the browser of choice for most Windows users, and Microsoft had to back down and get its Web site working properly – especially when the trade press took a look at Microsoft's HTML source code for its pages and found that they were specifically designed to work only with IE and its proprietary non-html> tags.

The plot thickens

And so it goes now with the Opera and Mozilla browsers and MSN. While Netscape 6.1 offers the most complete alternative to IE 5, Opera as a company is much more aggressive in targeting IE. Too, Netscape is now owned by AOL-Time-Warner – a conglomerate even Microsoft may not want to pick a fight with.

So for the time being, Netscape users can still successfully navigate their way around MSN; Opera and Mozilla users cannot – instead being given the option of downloading IE!

Now, Opera is the most fanatical about adhering to the HTML standards set up by the World Wide Web Consortium, the non-profit standards body charged with keeping some semblance of order online. And Mozilla is only slightly behind in following W3C guidelines. So Microsoft can't really claim that these browsers aren't correctly implementing industry standards, given that each of them is light-years ahead of Microsoft's browsers in following W3C.

Indeed, c|net reported that MSN's servers were actively looking for Opera and Mozilla browsers, then denying them access except for the offer of the IE download.

Further undercutting the line of fluff from the Microsoft p.r. flacks about how all standard-compliant browsers were supported is the fact that Netscape 6.1 – designed for AOL by the Mozilla team and using the same Gecko engine as Mozilla – works just fine with MSN.

Besides, for Microsoft to suddenly get the Compliance Religion is a bit much, given the company's truly abysmal record of ignoring standards to push its own technology. When Internet Explorer 5 came out for the Mac last year, and actually adhered to W3C HTML standards, well, it was enough to make you wonder if someone at Microsoft wasn't fired for that little screwup.

Parting with your money

As the c|net story further points out, Microsoft has a strong financial interest in getting more people to use IE as it tries to leverage XP as a sort of digital funnel to drive visitors to MSN. Windows XP has all kinds of links to MSN's online shops built in to the operating system itself, links that might not work as seamlessy at separating you from your money if you're using another browser.

See, the entire Windows XP OS is designed not to run your computer (what a silly little idea), but to make it easier than ever for you to make purchases – without those annoying little delays or intermediary steps that might cause you to reflect on whether you can really afford this purchase, or whether you really need this new gadget. And Internet Explorer is designed not for quick and universal browsing, but rather to complement Windows XP in making it quicker and easier to spend our money. With the combination of helpful (!) links to MSN portals and the built-in Microsoft Passport – a sort of online wallet with your credit card information all ready to go – XP makes it so very easy to make those impulse purchases that grocery store checkout lanes are famous for. Only these purchases are for much more expensive, and Microsoft's checkout lane is in our homes.

Making it easier to spend with less thought about it is, of course, a longstanding goal of American business. Credit cards, catalogs and 800 numbers were all designed not for our convenience, but to lower mental and emotional barriers to spending.

But no retailer ever had the kind of insidious access to our homes and wallets that Microsoft has with Windows XP.

Netscape, Opera and Mozilla are still designed – quaintly enough – to be browsers. While you can use your Microsoft Passport to do online shopping with any browser, you might have to click an additional button within those browsers – a step that just might get you to reconsider your purchase.

For this reason, they are to be destroyed.

Because, you see, 80 percent of the browser market just isn't enough for the world's richest man.