Yes, the Dark Force is back in town, to bring a new level of atrocity to the browser wars. Darth Vader (Bill Gates to you and me) wheeled out the heavy intergalactic artillery for lest week’s launch of Internet Explorer 4.0 beta. As usual, Microsoft is using muscles instead of brains by leveraging its near monopoly in the computer industry to its own advantage in the Internet market. How? Well, by blending the Internet browser and the Windows operating system together. That, for practical purposes, means that IE4.0 will be the default browser for a Windows 95 user, even if your heart lies with Netscape.
As if that were not enough, Microsoft has rounded up 250 media companies, including Disney, Discovery Channel and the Wall Street Journal, to provide content for IE4.o’s ‘channels’. We know a bit about their ‘signing up’ procedure on this side of the pond. It involves, if not direct payment, substantial contributions to ‘promotional alliances’ and to marketing budgets of content partners in exchange for-yes, you guessed it- a commitment to using the proprietary solutions of Microsoft technology.
One local example is Tesco and its use of ActiveX on its electronic commerce site. I nearly fell off my ergonomically designed chair when, upon entering the shopping area on Tesco’s site, I was welcomed with: ‘We have detected that the browser that you are using does not support either ActiveX controls or VBScript. Both of these technologies are required to use the Internet Superstore. So much for customer service. I have personally fired Webmasters who designed sites that were invisible to just 10 per cent of users, as they required too high a version of a browser.
A rejection of the whole Netscape population should earn a lifetime ban from the Webmaster profession. Why Tesco chose to lose more than half of its online audience by forcing us of a single browser is a mystery to me, but I guess it may have been related to the fact that the company which created the site has an extremely close relationship with Microsoft. The bullying of Web developers to use Microsoft solutions by promising marketing relationships destabilizes the market.
It also confuses corporate buyers by pushing immature technology on unsuspecting IT managers. That has been the case with Windows NT, which is still a baby compared with Unix, and should be safely locked away in the labs for a few more years of testing. Instead, marketed by the oversized school bully Microsoft, it found its way to the corporate environment that now has to cope with a dubious honour of being a guinea-pig for the product, after having had to spend money on it. When I was a researcher we paid our experimental subjects money, not the other way round, but I guess I am old-fashioned.
It does little for my IT buyer comfort zone that Microsoft has just announced the creation of 800 more sales and marketing jobs, to push more products down our collective throats. Why do they need more people? Presumably, the customers need more persuasion, as the products are being released earlier and earlier in their life cycle. I often feel that Office 97 is like the alpha version of my juvenile dabbling with code at university- making a mockery of backwards compatibility and ruining the lives of a numerous people on the project I’m working on at the moment, owing to all sorts of problems with document sharing.
Another example is the sharing of OS information with Microsoft partners, but not with competitors such as Netscape. This means that competitors’ products will work less efficiently with Windows. This policy contrasts sadly with, for example, Java specification, which is well documented and owned by no company.
However, do not despair; today is also the day that Apple launches its new Mac OS in the States, with some extremely cute features in tow. Perhaps all of us Microsoft victims should organise ourselves in an Internationally Exploited For Zero Value movement, chuck away our PCs and move to Apple. At least Steve Jobs so far hasn’t made us pay for software that is not ready to use, or abused or leveraged his monopoly position by forcing as ‘innovative’ business model that is based on the corporate client-base funding the testing and debugging of the products, as they have no other choice . Ten we can wait patiently until Java makes the waves.
All in all, it’s time Microsoft took all of us- individual software consumers and corporate IT buyers- seriously, respected our time and money, and made some more hires in the testing department instead of in sales and marketing. However, greed and monopoly go together. It will be hard to wean a company of this size off that particular power cocktail.