Microsoft: World Wide Whipping Boy?

More flak is heading Microsoft’s way — this time over the software giant’s Internet Explorer Web browser. The Web Standards Project, a grassroots software developer group, is complaining that the latest version of Internet Explorer is based on proprietary code rather than industry-wide technology standards.

The criticism comes only a week after a federal judge found Microsoft guilty of illegally creating a monopoly for its Windows operating system and attempting to monopolize the Internet browser market.

The group asserts that the new version of Internet Explorer, which is due for release later this year, includes features that do not comply with Web standards that Microsoft earlier pledged to support.

‘Schizophrenic Decision’

“We are incensed by Microsoft’s arrogance, and perplexed by its schizophrenic decision to support standards on one platform while undercutting them on another,” says Jeffrey Zeldman, Web Standards project manager.

The group says it opposes Microsoft’s action because Internet software applications written specifically for the new Explorer would not be compatible with competing browsers such as Netscape’s Communicator. Sites that use Explorer-compatible software may not look or function properly for Netscape users. Consumers might be unable to read Web site content or make purchases, the group contends.

Of course, the developers could make their applications compatible with other browsers too, but that would mean writing more code and escalating costs, with consumers most likely having to foot the bill in the end.

Nipping at Netscape’s Heels

The Web Standards group says it is no accident that Microsoft’s decision to use proprietary code for the new Explorer comes so soon after the preview release of Netscape’s latest browser.

“It’s hard not to view this as exactly the kind of ‘predatory’ behavior the U.S. Justice Department laid at Microsoft’s door,” Zeldman said.

Microsoft Explains

Not surprisingly, Microsoft officials totally disagree with the group’s take on the browser issue. First of all, they say, the company never promised that its newest browser would support 100 percent of the standards adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) — the dominant group working on common protocols of the Internet.

More importantly, Microsoft claims that of all the browsers on the market, its new Internet Explorer is “most compliant” with W3C standards.

Still Hanging Tough

While I certainly agree with the Web Standards group that the lack of a uniform code will cause problems for developers — and ultimately consumers — I still think Microsoft is innocent of wrongdoing. The company is simply playing hard ball.

If being a tough competitor were against the law, then Sun Microsystems should have gotten itself in a world of trouble over its free Internet giveaway of office suite applications last year. The move was clearly designed to undermine Microsoft Office, a suite of products that fetches a pretty penny at the counter.

The bottom line is that Microsoft — or any other developer — has every right to change the code on its products as many times or in any way it chooses. Software developers ultimately have the final say in how to write their applications.

If Netscape’s new browser fulfills the glowing praise from some analysts, who tout it as a much superior product, then users will adopt it — and Microsoft may eventually be compelled to reformulate its strategy as well as its code. Such is the nature of a competitive marketplace.

The Web Standards group seems utterly shocked that Bill Gates and Company have not simply folded up their tents and surrendered to their chief competitors. What I find most disconcerting about this latest attack on Microsoft is the degree of pure naivete it displays.

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