Browser Lockouts and Monopoly Power
October 31, 2001
People forget that industry is not an end in itself, but should be only a means to insure to people their material subsistence and to make accessible to them the blessings of a higher intellectual culture. Where industry is everything and people are nothing begins the realm of a ruthless economic despotism whose workings are no less disastrous than those of any political despotism. The two mutually augment one another, and they are fed from the same source. -- Rudolf Rocker
Perhaps, like journalists, the most socially beneficial thing the independent XML developer community can do is to be independent. In addition to the technology they build, independent developers serve a socially important function by telling the truth and exposing lies.
The XML-DEV list has a history of doing just that, often deflating the overhyped or false claims of large vendors. The most recent example is last week's conversation about Microsoft's MSN.com lockout of browsers that compete with Internet Explorer.
Last Week's Story Is...
XML.com's editor, Edd Dumbill, started the conversation in a message that informed XML-DEV of the situation. Dumbill cited Sandeep Junnakar's report for CNET, one of the first to appear about the situation:
Using the most recent browser from Mozilla.org to reach MSN brings a message from Microsoft saying it has "detected that the browser that you are using will not render MSN.com correctly" ...
"Additionally, you'll see the most advanced functionality of MSN.com only with the latest version of Microsoft Internet Explorer or MSN Explorer," the message continues.
The software giant admitted that it is watching for Opera strings--but only because it wants to encourage people to use standard-compliant browsers.
"We do identify the string from the browser, and the only issue that we have is that the Opera browser doesn't support the latest XHTML standard," said Visse. "So we do suggest to those users that they go download a browser that does support the latest standards."
As if the lockout itself weren't bad enough, Dumbill pointed out, Microsoft was trying to justify it by offering transparently false claims about public standards compliance. As Dumbill said,
What really rankles is using standards-compliance as an excuse.
I appeal to those involved in W3C work to distance themselves from this perversion of standards to mask a plainly cynical corporate move, and to those on this list who do work for Microsoft to convey deep displeasure to those responsible.
For anyone who thought Microsoft's commitment to web standards was a pure and gentle thing, think again. I think I can safely predict we're nearly at the point where "standard" has lost its semantic value.
Actual public standards, as well as the very idea of a de facto or de jure public standard, are common coin, as easily debased by misuse and abuse as exalted and reinforced by proper use. This is precisely the point Dumbill makes about the semantic value of "standard." Every time a large vendor, and Microsoft is certainly no exception, seeks to justify a self-aggrandizing move by fallacious appeal to standards compliance, everyone who does standards work in good faith, as well as the very idea of public standards, is diminished.
Many of the members of XML-DEV reacted publicly to the MSN.com lockout. While no one seemed especially surprised that Microsoft would cynically subvert public standards, the degree of frustration and disappointment was palpable.
Danny Ayers put the lockout into some technical context --
I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments, the "standards compliance" line here is indefensible, but all MSN are really doing here is taking a few steps towards the web service approach that technologies like XML are enabling and simply making their site pay-to-view. One way of side-stepping open source's challenge, I suppose.
The timing of the MSN.com lockout, and that of the release of Windows XP, should not go unremarked.
The lockout prompted Rick Jelliffe to say, "I certainly will be stopping using IE now, and [will] look[...] at" Opera. Jelliffe was one of the first XML-DEVers to take the lockout to have some bearing upon the pending antitrust case against Microsoft, an idea that was echoed by others. "I hope the new judge," Jelliffe said, "in their sentencing has the guts to do something; I really cannot see why breaking them up still isn't the only reasonable approach".
There is a real concern about when or whether it's in one's rational economic self-interest to implement and support public standards. While in many key, infrastructural industries -- power, transportation, health care, and some telecommunications -- a legal and regulatory regime requires vendors to sell only those products that implement relevant public standards, that kind of regulatory regime has not yet been applied to Internet software technology. Whether or not to implement publicly standardized technology, or whether to implement a proprietary technology, is a live economic and political question for many software vendors, of whatever size and market power.
It is at least some measure of the inherent appeal and persuasive bite of the idea of standards, as well as the technical merit of core XML standards, that Microsoft, as an adjudicated monopolist, supports any publicly standardized technologies at all.
Eric van der Vlist seemed to be making a similar point, even if in a half-facetious manner, when he said,
1) MSN is not compliant with the W3C Recommendations server side
2) IE is not supporting the latest W3C Recommendations client side
3) You need a non compliant browser (IE) to render correctly this not compliant site (MSN) .
It's an indication that:
1) The MSN guys are regular readers of XML.com
2) They have been fast to apply [Edd Dumbill's] advice to be selfish.
Understanding the process doesn't mean we should excuse it and I think that what we need for the success of open standards is just the contrary of what Microsoft has shown here...
We need people and organizations who implement and deploy them instead of just pretending!
While we can attribute part of his point to his good-natured desire to poke a bit of fun at Dumbill's recent column, "The Selfish Tag", van der Vlist makes a serious point, namely, that Microsoft's compliance with public standards is perceived to be very suspect, and with good reason. It seems reasonable to expect, given (1) the absence of a regulatory regime that requires standards compliance (2) in an industry dominated by an adjudicated monopolist, that public standards compliance will often be used as a kind of political weapon against competitors, rather than purely as a means to the end of public, social good.
Daniel Veillard expressed similar frustrations.
I tried [to access MSN.com] with galeon (Mozilla Gecko engine) and was told to go to hell. A colleague, [who] tried with Konqueror [and was told the] same thing, changed the browser to fake an IE browser and everything displayed perfectly fine (except a small change in the background).
Just say you don't want people to get information on your site if they don't pay the Microsoft Tax, but do not use standard compliance or "user experience" as a lame pretext, it's not, Microsoft should try at least to be honest! Of course they don't care anymore...
The connection between an MSN.com lockout and pending antitrust proceedings against Microsoft was reiterated by Dennis Sosnoski.
I broke down and tried MSN myself this morning, only to get the laughable "Upgrade Required to View MSN.COM" message. Strangely, there was no link for Linux users to click for an "upgrade". ;-)
This actually should be more fodder for the court case...
Opera is internationally acclaimed and renowned for its strict compliance with all international Internet standards. Maybe Microsoft should take a look at its lack of respect for the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) international Internet standards before bad-mouthing others.
The irony of Microsoft's claim to standards-support is complete when you check the MSN.com site for compliance with the XHTML standard. Anyone can go to the W3C's standards validation service at http://validator.w3.org/ and type in
www.msn.com. The document returned demonstrates clearly that not a single document on their site adheres to W3C specifications, and many of their documents do not use XHTML at all, e.g. http://careers.msn.com/.
This is not the first time Microsoft has tried to deny Opera users entry. Before, Microsoft has tried to keep Opera users out from its IIS-servers by excluding Opera from the browsercap.ini set-up files. That would exclude Opera users from any Web sites running on Microsoft's server solutions.
Next Week's Nightmare
No one familiar with Microsoft's history should be at all surprised to see it act to stifle competition. The XML-DEV list knows, better than most Internet users, the relevant history and has seen Microsoft at work. What may be new here is the use of W3C standards and recommendations as the fig leaf.
Perhaps stung by the swift public reaction, Microsoft says it has stopped the lockout, though as late as Monday, 29 October, there was still some question as to when or if the lockout reversal had fully taken effect.
The MSN.com lockout -- coincident with the release of Windows XP, which is widely reported to be tied very closely to MSN.com -- highlights the degree to which voluntary standards in an industry dominated by such a powerful corporation are very likely to fail to achieve the intended result. Tim Berners-Lee has said recently, in response to Dan Gillmor's questions about the lockout, that some legislative response is needed:
This would suggest that we should be looking at legislation to control the independence of the medium which we rely on and trust for so much.
... We could introduce legislation that the suppliers of generic software, suppliers of generic communications and generic hardware should be isolated financially. This would open the individual markets to fair completion, which is the basis of the market economy in which all these companies and consumers all thrive. At this point I would strongly support such legislation.
There was a time when I would have beloved [sic.] that the ethos of the Internet, and understanding of the importance as an independent medium, was pervasive enough to ensure that things would be an acceptably open. However, the latest events have shown that this is not the case, and legislation is therefore required before we can have the sort of world in which I want to live, work, and bring up children.
However, even if such legislation is politically possible in the American Congress today, which is very doubtful, it certainly would await resolution of the pending antitrust proceedings against Microsoft. And whatever legal outcome might be reached, it seems impossible that the Bush Administration will propose or support the kind of legislation Berners-Lee describes, especially given Bush's public opposition to the landmark antitrust action against Microsoft.
Also in XML-Deviant
The federal government and Microsoft are currently in the middle of settlement negotiations, which were ordered by Judge Kollar-Kotelly, who was assigned to resolve the case. Judge Kollar-Kotelly has said that if there is no agreement by 2 November, she will hold hearings in March to determine what sanctions should be imposed on Microsoft to prevent future antitrust violations.
The latest reported development, of 13 October, does not bode well for the likelihood of a negotiated settlement. Judge Kollar-Kotelly has appointed Boston University's Professor Eric Green as a mediator, which implies that discussions so far have been unproductive.
The MSN lockout, coming so close to the 2 November deadline, and seeming to be so provocative to the government's case, may possibly have been designed to spoil negotiations. Or, as others have suggested, it just may have been a mistake by MSN.com management, one which must hurt Microsoft's position at the negotiating table.
Whatever the cause of the lockout, its effect is consonant with the original findings of fact, which were reaffirmed on appeal, and continue to be instructive:
Most harmful of all is the message that Microsoft's actions have conveyed to every enterprise with the potential to innovate in the computer industry. Through its conduct... Microsoft has demonstrated that it will use its prodigious market power and immense profits to harm any firm that insists on pursuing initiatives that could intensify competition against one of Microsoft's core products... The ultimate result is that some innovations that would truly benefit consumers never occur for the sole reason that they do not coincide with Microsoft's self-interest.