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Month in the life (and death) of a browser

§ Web standards · Browsers

So the furore surrounding Internet Explorer is finally dissipating. If somehow you’ve missed it, here are the pertinent facts:

  1. In a suit settlement with Microsoft, AOL (owner of Netscape) received $760 million and, more importantly, free licensing of Internet Explorer for 7 years. [primary source: Microsoft press release]
  2. Internet Explorer for Mac will no longer be developed. [primary source: Jimmy Grewal, key member of the Mac Internet Explorer team]
  3. There will be no future standalone installations of Internet Explorer for Windows; IE6 SP1 is the final standalone installation. Further improvements to Internet Explorer will only be available through upgrades of a new operating system (codenamed Longhorn) or by subscribing to MSN. [primary source: Microsoft TechNet transcript]

AOL

So AOL has won the right to license IE free of charge for the rest of the decade. If AOL choses to exercise this license and continue incorporating IE into its software, it would mean the corporate owner of Netscape committing itself to increasing IE’s market share. This would clearly be bad news for us as developers and Web users. If AOL choses instead to continue developing its Mozilla-based browser, the pressure may stay on Microsoft to provide a standards-supporting Internet Explorer.

By brokering the 7 year IE deal, Microsoft is no doubt hoping that AOL abandons Netscape and the Mozilla project with it. This would drastically reduce choice for Windows users who do not upgrade to Longhorn. They would have to switch to Opera (or an aging Mozilla), or stick with the current version of IE6 for the foreseeable future. (Note that IE6 was released in 2001.)

If AOL was to use IE instead of its own Netscape browser for the next seven years, but IE will not change outside the Longhorn OS, doesn’t this mean that AOL users also be stuck with IE6 until 2011?

So common sense (ha!) indicates that AOL’s long-term strategy must involve Mozilla to some degree. It seems that AOL needs to continue developing their own software and break the Microsoft habit. Remember AOL has got Microsoft’s cash and the open source Mozilla project to help it to this end.

No more standalone IE/Win

Essentially IE is no longer free. If you want to upgrade you will need to buy the new operating system and keep upgrading that to upgrade your browser. But seeing as Longhorn won’t be available until 2005 this means Microsoft’s browsing environment won’t start to change for at least two years and won’t be widely adopted until at least 2007.

All this wouldn’t be so bad if IE6 was fairly bug-free, but it has seriously flawed support for standards. Sure, it’s a far better platform for standards-based design than Netscape 4 ever was, but problems such as its lack of support for PNG transparency and shortcomings with regard to CSS float and adjacent sibling selectors mean it’s nowhere near good enough to stay as it is for another two years.

(MacEdition has published an eye-watering chart detailing CSS2 support (or lack thereof) in browsers including IE6/Windows, MSN for Mac OS X, Opera 7, Gecko, Safari, and others.)

So we, as Web developers, will need to get used to coding to the abilities of IE6/Win. We can reliably use the standards-compliant methods (valid XHTML, CSS layout etc) developed over the last three years, but we won’t be able to push the envelope. Less popular browsers will continue to improve and hopefully will gain in market share. But few of us will be able to take advantage of their sophisticated standards support if most of the market continues to use an unchanged year 2000 browser.

I don’t know if Microsoft’s future Web browsing environment will be more or less compliant with the standards we have now. I don’t know if they’ll ‘invent’ a bunch of proprietary stuff in the meantime and I don’t know if they will keep up with emerging standards such as XHTML 2 and CSS 3. However I do know that all this makes standards more important than ever.

If we keep coding to standards then Microsoft will have to make its browsing environment support standards as well. More importantly, it means that other browsers (Mozilla, Opera, etc) and other platforms (Mac, Linux) will also be able to access those pages.

Postscript

In the recent anti-trust ruling against Microsoft, it was revealed that Microsoft was making PC manufacturers and dealers ship with Internet Explorer installed or ship without Windows. Microsoft’s argument in court was that Internet Explorer was an integral component of the operating system. Microsoft lost that argument and was found guilty of having criminally abused its monopoly power to crush competing Internet-based businesses.

The U.S. government did nothing about it and now Microsoft are going to try the same trick with Longhorn. This time, with no standalone browser around, the browsing environment will indeed be built into the operating system. Thus Microsoft neatly sidestep the anti-trust ruling and further monopolize use of the Internet.

References

  1. Zeldman: AOL to AOL Netscape: drop dead (30 May 2003)
  2. Hixie: AOL Agrees to Get Under Microsoft’s Desk (30 May 2003)
  3. Zeldman: IE/AOL/Netscape: what happens next? (1 June 2003)
  4. Zeldman: IE/AOL: the flip side (4 June 2003)
  5. Zeldman: 2005? Are they kidding? (11 June 2003)
  6. Zeldman: R.I.P. (13 June 2003)
  7. Dave Shea: And The Web Played On (16 June 2003)
  8. Simon Willison: Missing the point (16 June 2003)
  9. Zeldman: Conspiracy theory (16 June 2003)