September 12, 2000

IE6 and Microsoft: An old tactic on a new platform

Author: JT Smith

- by Jack Bryar -
An Open Source Business Extra -

You have known for months that as soon as Microsoft got a chance they'd
be back at their old tricks. You knew they wanted to convert the Web into
another proprietary platform, you just weren't sure how they'd do it. Was it
the .NET initiative? Or was Hailstorm the center of the company's plans? Well, it
turns out that Microsoft's plan is surprisingly simple. It may work. And it is
nearly guaranteed to get Microsoft another court date.The reason that Microsoft will almost certainly land back in court
is based on its newest stranglehold in the PC market, and what it has
chosen to do with its advantage. Over the last 18 months or so, Internet
Explorer has succeeded Netscape as the de facto standard platform for accessing
the Web on 90% of all personal computers. This represents a significant
win for Microsoft as it means that Microsoft has built the IE franchise
into yet another monopoly. In many ways the Internet browser is the
Web equivalent of the client operating system. It is the platform on
which other applications run. To own the Web browser franchise gives
Microsoft a new monopoly -- a second platform to control. What it is doing with
that new monopoly is a stunner.

Microsoft has announced that Internet Explorer 6.0 will not support
Java, and it won't support plug-ins unless they are built on Microsoft's
Active X technology. The impact on Web development may be severe.

The withdrawal of support for plug-ins will have a stifling effect.
While the dot-bomb implosion has slowed the development of plug-ins,
there are dozens if not hundreds of popular Web based programs that run using
plug-ins. Plug-ins have introduced the Web community to hundreds of
multimedia applications ranging from streaming audio and video to read-only text
and image content. In many ways, plug-ins are the equivalent of client
side applications in a Web environment. Cutting them off without a
rational explanation is the equivalent of Microsoft trying to sabotage all PC
applications that didn't use a Microsoft programming language.

The attempt to throw up barriers to Java development is even more
blatant. In recent years, Java has become the most widely used of all
programming languages. Given that Java is open and essentially free, many colleges
use it as the core of their first year programming courses. Java is at
the heart of thousands of small Web-based applications and countless
Web-centric enterprise programs. It is the "other" open platform --- in some
ways it is more important to the notion of open development than Linux.
Throwing barriers up to discourage Java programming hardly enhances any
innovations, unless you count the spin that Microsoft's lawyers and PR
staffers will have to generate in order to justify this outrage.
The message to software developers couldn't be more clear; develop on
any platform other than a Microsoft product, and you risk your application.

Whatever Microsoft's earlier transgressions, the company never
attempted to cut off all other competing software from running on its operating
system. This is because, despite Microsoft's dominance of office
applications, it knew that it could not afford to alienate developers of home-grown
enterprise software packages. The company has never imagined that it could develop
every application its clients might need. It simply chose to pick off
the most popular. It built software programming tools that took advantage
of characteristics of the Microsoft platform that were unfamiliar to its
competition, but it never took steps to actively prevent programs compiled using
Borland C++ from running on a Windows platform.

This time, Microsoft is interfering with the development of an open
platform. It is sabotaging a software development process that gave the
Web much of its present richness. Why? Microsoft apologists claim that
it is an attempt to provide additional security, but that's laughable.
There's nothing in ActiveX that provides any additional security
to anything, save perhaps Microsoft's bottom line.

The antitrust implications of Microsoft's IE6 initiative seems plain
enough. It is yet another case of Microsoft developing a monopoly and
using it to strangle potential threats to its operating system by throwing up
barriers to compel the larger community to use Microsoft platforms,
like them or not. Most commercial web site developers are unlikely
to risk anything that that would confuse site visitors. The market is
tough enough already. It will not take much pressure to convince them that
they have to build on ActiveX and C# platforms.

Microsoft may claim that no one is being forced to use IE6 (they did
detach it from the core operating system!). The company and its lawyers and its PR
types and its assortment of apologists will certainly insist that this newest
gambit is unrelated to Microsoft's earlier anticompetitive hijinks.
However, it springs from the same corporate culture and a mindset that prefers
to use strong-arm tactics and coercion rather than superior products to
dominate its market space. This time, the stakes aren't just an operating system
but the Web itself.

Individual users may rebel against using IE6, or even Microsoft
products. That's likely the case with the majority of NewsForge
readers. However, most commercial Web site developers are not going to risk any
possibility that users may stay with an IE platform. Whether they want
to or not, the bulk of them will develop using Microsoft products and
platforms, unless someone knows a good lawyer.

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